Holding on to what we know

Sometimes you just know. All This Is

We humans think we’re rational and pragmatic; steady, reasoned thinkers building our lives on the bedrock of logic and truth. The world is concrete, knowable; we can write its substance down in books, post its realities on the Web, give ourselves medals for adding to the collective inventory of All This Is. Yet each day, we believe in things we can’t see, trust in things we don’t understand, and count as most important the things that can’t be quantified.

Inconvenient as it may be, the world does not simply lie down along a tape measure or sit still for a photograph.

We look up at the night sky and watch the speckled universe pinwheel by, yet we can’t see what keeps the stars apart or pulls them together. And then the sun comes up and the universe disappears. “The more light there is, the less you can see,” author and BBC commentator John Lloyd wryly observed.

And the list goes on. Gravity — can’t see it, don’t really know what it is, but we delight in it every time we push a child on a swing; wind — unseen, we only know it’s here when it tosses leaves about or rattles the screen door; atoms — smaller than the wavelength of visible light, so we will never see them, but they make us so they must be real; even light itself is utterly invisible — we only see what it lands on.

And so we stumble on boldly without seeing, yet believing.

“Electricity, you can’t see that,” Lloyd said. “Don’t let anyone tell you they understand electricity. They don’t. Nobody knows what it is.” Yet we appropriate it, trust it, sometimes stake our very lives on it.

And take digestion (a personal favorite): I can’t see it, have no idea how it works (they say bacteria, hydrochloric acid, and symbiosis are involved), yet I eat every day, munching away happily and trusting that everything will come out well in the end.

Courage, love, misery, beauty, loneliness, fulfillment, peace, happiness — these and hundreds of things like them are real enough (fighting and dying for them is proof sufficient) yet they can’t be seen or even truly understood, and they certainly cannot be measured. Regarding happiness, the BBC announced in 2003 this formula: H = P + (5 x E) + (3 x H), where P stands for personal characteristics (optimism is good), E is existence (i.e. your health), and H is “Higher-Order Needs” (e.g. ego-stroking). Pure mathematical claptrap. Years ago, a friend of mine defined happiness as “any day you can sit up and sip soup.” Now there’s a reality we can chew on.

When you really think about it, most of what we know, and trust, and hold dear, can’t be placed in cupped hands, observed under a microscope, or punched into a calculator. We know gravity is real when we look out a January window to watch the snowflakes fall, trust in friction when we slam on the brakes, and can feel friendship in a glance across a crowded room. These things are real because, well, they just are.

I often go to bed earlier than my wife. But, being a light sleeper, I usually stir when she crawls quietly under the covers. And when she’s settled in and her breathing has slowed, I search for her hand to hold. And so we lace our fingers and drift off to sleep, as we have most every night for nearly three decades. I couldn’t write down the equation that explains why I love her, in the pitchy blackness I can’t see her, and I certainly don’t understand her, but there she is — I just know it.

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