I Do Not Understand One Thing in This World

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.”

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

I have been trying for several days to write a heated invective against the complacency of modern society. I wanted to passionately denounce the oppression and exploitation which exists in the world. I wanted to assert the primacy of freedom and self-determination against corrupt systems of power. I wanted to inspire outrage at the abuses of governments and international organizations and multinational corporations. Yet every time I started writing, I found myself mired in exceptions and caveats and difficulties.

Finally, I decided that the article I needed to write was a very different one. A few years ago, I ran across a Facebook post on epistemic humility. I thought at the time that I could not possibly write anything which expressed my sentiments better. Now I feel I must try.

I have had some unusual experiences in the past few months. I have worked with volunteers from across the world to help the victims of violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. I have learned how to say ‘eggplant’ in Greek and how difficult it is to learn a new alphabet. I have spent time in Catalonia during a crisis in its relations with Spain and spent time in Northern Ireland during a time when its government refuses to convene because of differences between pro-Ireland and pro-UK factions. I have attended LDS Church services in 6 different cities and talked with hundreds of new people across different countries.

Yet I have never felt so perplexed by the problems of the world. Every woman, every man has their own opinions on the difficulties facing the world. Everyone has an opinion on Donald Trump. Everyone has an opinion on same-sex marriage. I immerse myself in the news and culture of the countries I visit, or of my home country, and find valid opinions and sincere arguments on every side. And sometimes I find people who express such anger, such hatred, and such confidence in their own opinions that it stifles anyone who desires to speak from the other side.

How is this possible? How could anyone feel so sure that they know the answer — and so threatened by someone else’s opinion — that they feel obliged to denounce opponents as fools or traitors? Surely there is a basic charity which we forget in such situations, losing the awareness that every person is someone’s daughter or son, is someone’s friend, is someone who likes warm summer evenings and lost their keys last week. But even more, we also forget how often we are wrong.

The quotation at the beginning of this article comes from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a brilliant novel about the musings and history of an old country pastor in the Midwest. He recalls a dear friend saying the line one day as they walked out of a peculiarly difficult situation — an illegitimate child abandoned by her father and dragged into obstinate poverty by her mother’s family, yet who commands the love of her visitors with her confidence and youthful stubbornness even as they know she will end her life in misery. I nearly cried when I first read the line. I feel exactly the same so often.

I support Catalonian independence, I think. I have talked to enough Catalans who find their government over the years has grown more like the Franco dictatorship, not less. They need independence to chart a new, more open course in Europe. Yet I have dear friends who feel that the Catalonia issue will tear Spain apart, or impoverish the already struggling Spanish people, or end postwar stability in Europe. What if they are right?

I support Irish governance of Northern Ireland, I think. I have talked to enough Irish people who support it, read enough articles about the historic repression of Ireland, that I believe that a united Ireland will be better for the region than continued paternalistic UK policy. But what of the claims of Protestant inhabitants who have lived there longer than my own country has existed, that they will be repressed or even killed if the Irish government takes control of the region? What of the deaths of their family members and friends when they defended their land against equally passionate Catholic rebels? Are their claims on the land and on governance not equally strong?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does more good than bad, I think. I have had enough beautiful experiences within its walls and with its people to make me believe in its blessings and inspiration. But what of the thousands of homosexual women and men who have felt forgotten, oppressed, and denied within its congregations? What of the hundreds of thousands of men and women frightened or hurt by the preaching of eternal polygamy in the life to come? What of the millions of women who have been taught from childhood that men are their natural leaders? People I love have declared with confidence that the church does more bad than good — what if they are right?

I do not support Donald Trump, I think. I believe he empowers white supremacists, trivializes women, antagonizes dangerous world leaders, drives away the best women and men in politics, and allows vulnerable members of our society to be exploited while the rich get richer. But I have dozens of friends who believe that Trump is a decent president, and some who believe he is the best thing to happen to our country in decades. We read about the same events, read the same words from the man, and come to entirely different conclusions. What if they are right about Trump — how much could we lose through the stubborn opposition of people like me?

Some of the finest women and men of their generations believed that Native Americans had no right to the North American continent, that black people should always be slaves, that women should never be allowed to vote, that India was incapable of self-governance, that Hitler could be appeased after a few small conquests. They were wrong, not because they didn’t think deeply about these issues, but simply because human beings are wrong all the time.

I am wrong all the time.

“Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull, I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.”

- Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”

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“I’m younger than that now.” The more I learn, the more I travel, the more I realize I don’t know. There are two sides to every argument, and the combatants on one side or the other are not more stupid or blind than the other. It’s just that we’re all a little stupid and blind.

Perhaps I should abandon my strong opinions, then. But I am drawn back to that post I mentioned earlier, which expressed the following thought: “You know, at the end of the day, we’re all just little children really, and the more we come to know, the more we realize how little we actually know, and the sublime confrontation with our stark limitedness soberly inspires us to just proceed forward with a keen call simply to do the best that we can with what we’re given for the sake of what’s good in the world.”

“For the sake of what’s good in the world.” Because there is so much worth preserving, and so much danger to those things from chaos and evil in the world, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax ends with these simple lines:

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“Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”

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Sometimes it is because we care that we disagree so forcefully. But if The Lorax teaches us we must not stop fighting, Bob Dylan and Marilynne Robinson and that future judge on Facebook teach us that we must not hate along the way. So I will keep writing, and sometimes I will be right, and sometimes I will be wrong. Sometimes I will express my opinion too strongly or not strongly enough, and people will be offended. I only know that I cannot keep quiet when I see something wrong in the world. Even if I am wrong — even when I am wrong, I cannot be silent.

I expect nothing less of those who stand on the opposite side of any issue from me. But I sincerely hope that I will always be forgiving and humble when I engage with them. For “I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.”

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’