The Big World and the Experimental Life

One of the principles that motivates and sustains an experimental life is the observation that “the world is big“. Consistently, I find I’m not interested in the mentalities that there’s a right and wrong way to live, a good and bad one, a smart and stupid one. The choice of a life (some people would say “lifestyle” but I think that’s a word for superficialities – mere ‘styles’) – the choice of a life is as individual as the person. People around us are rife with prescriptions. I believe I have some general prescriptions, as well. I’m not against someone saying ‘in order to achieve x, here is something I’ve found that works’ – in other words, “how to” guides for achieving a person’s particular goals. What I reject is someone presuming for me what the goals are, or what they should be – assuming instead of truly listening.

worldisbig-300x257The attempt to standardize the person, which is always, always, and not coincidentally, an attempt to reproduce the person in one’s own image – that’s what I’m against – someone shoving their self-love down my throat – the imposition of their secret belief that they are the standard of right, correct, true, real, etc. – the practical solipsism that suggests their choice of a life is the only authentic choice. Again, not coincidentally, their chosen life is usually a copy, a Xerox duplication, of one lived by someone else – their parents (yes, it is possible to clone a life), someone they admire (e.g. a fanciful biography of some religious or other ideological figure), some set of gurus they’re following (Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, etc), or just a conglomeration of voices of people who heckled them when they were growing up.

So all the preachers of “here’s how to be successful”, “here’s how to be upright” – they’re not even the worst. What about those who don’t even start with an assumed goal – they just go right to “if it’s different (than how I live) it’s wrong”. That’s the heart of bigotry, you know – ‘different = wrong’, based on the false assumption that distinction = opposition. These hand you platitudes like “what is simple is true” or “charity starts at home” or “what’s important in life is having a nice home and a nice family and being comfortable” and expect you to just sign onto that without a thought, because enough people are saying it and it seems, to them, obvious. They aren’t asking your goals, even, and sort of saying there’s only one right methodology – they’re outright assigning you your goals, as well. Bigots aren’t just those who stand in the street and yell insults at people of a different shade – that’s just one expression of bigotry – bigotry at it’s core is the assumption that there’s a right way to live for everyone else – it’s the closet assertion of one’s own infallibility in relation to the world and others – one’s secret belief that oneself is the standard – one’s assertion, ultimately, that the world is small.

In internet marketing, one of the most common fallacies is the assumption that most people are motivated by what motivates me, respond to what I respond to – the belief, never fully articulated, that most people are like me. That *I* am the icon of normalcy. But personality typing refutes that – it suggests, as I’m fond of telling people who are short-circuiting their marketing with that assumption – that 75% of the human population is not at all like me – they’re motivated by utterly different things, respond quite differently to the same stimuli, and require very different stimuli to produce a similar response.

One encounters an almost religious assumption of oneself as the basis of reality – a closet solipsism. That’s the real religion in most people’s coffee, I’ve found – most people’s ideological, religious, political, and general philosophical tenets are a sham cover for the conviction in the absolutism of the self. “Jesus”, and “common sense”, and “the right way” are just a projection of one’s own most comfortable preferences, in other words. When someone is preaching the right way to live, they are preaching themselves. When someone is doing that, they are saying not only that the world is small, but that it’s so small that it consists of one person – again, practical solipsism.

It’s not just in large issues that one sees the religion of the self and the doctrine of the small world. Small things are often the first signs. You get half a glass of water, with no ice, and someone asks why you don’t just fill it up, and how are you going to drink it warm like that. What, do you just have to be different to be different? The world is small – there can’t possibly be whole societies of people who prefer water at room temperature, or who don’t need an entire quart of water with a meal.

The world just can’t be that big, right? I always watch for how small people actually think the world is, by watching their responses to ordinary differences. If they use the words “that’s weird” a lot, or “I just don’t understand why someone would do that” frequently, they’re hard-core, fundamentalist believers in a tiny, tiny world. It’s small, freaking world after all, isn’t it? No bigger than maybe Tulsa. It’s in the lingo, too. People who say “America” when they mean the United States are all about it – there’s only one ‘real’ culture on the continent, only one important one.

Someone once wanted to know why I eat seaweed for lunch, as if there’s a “why” that needs an answer, vs. a “why not”. They kept at me about it, telling me eating seaweed is “weird”. Their reaction was fascinating, if trite, when I told them far more than half the world eats seaweed as seaweed, and they themselves eat it in ice-cream (carageenan) and dozens of other products – so, by definition, people who *don’t* eat seaweed are weird. They elected to take offense. I actually had to explain to the twits who employed them that I will not be apologizing for pointing out an obvious fallacy in a bigoted attitude. The world is not small – it’s a big world. Today, I watch carefully people’s responses to things they label “foreign” or “different” – you can tell how small a mind is by how small the world is that projected by that mind; the “world” is, after all, a construct of the mind.

And if they add “that’s not right” or “that’s not normal” a lot, then they’re particularly antagonistic toward people who live outside the small world – people, in short, who actually exist. Bigotry combined with antagnonism – you can tell a lot about character by listening to people describe the “size” of the cosmos. See, if you draw a circle and call it the world, you can draw a much bigger circle around that one, with the little circle at one edge, and that’s actually the real world. The thing you call the world, when you’re saying “that’s weird” or “that’s not normal” is just a figment of your imagination – a projection of the self, literally the imagination of the self, as the symbol of all that is real, of the cosmos.

In short, small worlders believe they are “god” – at least, what people generally prefer to mean by that word. Even when they show up in their churches on Sundays, as droves of them do, they really are worshipping a stylized and refined version of themselves. When each one looks at that Sunday School picture of “Jesus” they see their own traits, at least as the underlying assumption for comparison and reference. This is nothing new, but is well known in anthropology – e.g. Durkheim’s thesis. It’s the same for those arguing politics over the Sunday paper. Again, politics has already been widely discussed as a surrogate for religion (in that sense, by the way, you live in a theistic state, in which religion is used to give activity, thought, and motivation to citizens for purposes of making them ineffective and for control – again something widely discussed – e.g. Chomsky). This is a very widely held heresy.

A more accurate way to describe the big world is to rub out the larger circle altogether – maybe suggest its deletion with a dotted line, and say that the small circle is the fiction, the self presented as the world, and all the space infinitely beyond is the actual cosmos. Not that it’s infinite, but that we don’t know where it ends, how big it is, how much diversity is there – the absence of a defining boundary suggests not infinity, as though the thing itself defies comprehension – we would have to be omniscient to know that – it reflects, rather, our lack of knowledge.

The big world is a construct that comes from humility, not presumption. It suggests that the failure to know it all does not lie in the thing itself, but in our own weakness, our own lack of vision, our own smallness. In other words, it is not actually the world that is small, it is ourselves. The small worlders hold the opposite view – the secret attitude that they themselves are big – so big that they consistute the universe – they are normalcy, correctness, the standard. The doctrine of the small world is the doctrine of those who see themselves as ‘god’, as omnirelevant, as omniapplicable.

It’s not much of a jump, then, to suspect that the small world attitude is the source of genocide (the heart of all political crimes), either as a tangible reality or merely an attitude. I’m the standard – others who aren’t, don’t exist – don’t share the same ‘reality’ as myself – aren’t ‘true’, ‘right’, or shouldn’t “be” (i.e. ‘exist’) – that’s genocide in principle. And it’s the heart of most preaching of most doctrines, ideologies, personal opinions, and philosophies, most everywhere for all time. Ideology itself is the bedfellow of the small world – is in fact its tool for articulating the small world.

When people asked me what it was like living in Korea for three years, I tell them it was “different”. Imagine, I say (knowing it’s impossible), that none of the assumptions about human behavior that you’re familiar with apply. Imagine that things don’t mean the same things, even if they are the same words. Imagine the etiquette, the ethics, all areas of philosophical assumption that you’ve developed aren’t useful, applicable, or at least entirely relevant. “How does one live?” they ask. At first, you don’t – you don’t get it – it’s very hard – but if you’re going to continue, eventually, you live (you sustain yourself), by widening your world. You draw a circle, call that “the world” you knew, and draw a big invisible circle around it, and call that the world you’re learning.

Oh you meet people who have it all figured out – who get it – who can tell you everything there is to know about the rest of the world, or a particular place. They don’t get it at all. The reason the line is invisible is because the moment you’ve decided you can stop learning, that you’ve got a handle on it, your big circle, proudly larger than others’ little orbs, is just a tiny dot again. When there’s nothing beyond, you haven’t grown, you’ve simply shrunk the world. Who cares if it’s bigger than others – it’s still fundamentally small. The only way to live in a big world is not to comprehend all of it, but to open up the lines and live with the unknown – really live with it. Be comfortable with NOT having a handle on it.

That’s the real difference, socially, between big worlders and small worlders. Small worlders have a handle on the world, no matter how big or small they think it is. Doesn’t matter if they talk all the time about politics in China from a coffee shop in the US – if they’ve got it down, it’s small. Small worlders are afraid, terrified, of not having a handle on things – of a world beyond their grasp. Right and wrong, true and false, “smart” and “stupid”, are largely just incantations for shrinking the world to a less terrifying size, for grasping it by creating of it a fiction – like Santa or Bipartisanship.

Big Worlders aren’t afraid – they find the world being so large that it’s a constant adventure, that there’s always room to be curious without immediately determing where something fits in the schema or right/wrong true/false good/bad. Big Worlders don’t need to sum it all up. They do have assumptions, they do draw conclusions, they do come up with rules and principles that work for them – but those rules are always tentative, their hypotheses for interacting with the world. I hold to a number of such rules that I wish weren’t actually true – and I’m willing for the world to prove them wrong – but, so far, they keep being borne out. I’m still looking at it, though.

Age is the death of the big world for some people. I remember someone telling me that when you get older, you (are supposed to) have a pretty good idea of what you think, don’t really question it anymore, and are not interested in exploring the world as much. I’ve found that view prevalent among small worlders. But there are some really neat, interesting old people (older than that person was) who never drew in the lines, never shut off the lights looking out past them, and have never stopped imagining the world as big.

See, even the very statement that this is what happens when you get old, or what is supposed to happen, what signals maturity – that you believe in the small world – that you make yourself the standard for what remains – is itself the expression of the small world. It’s circular reasoning. Once you open your mouth to say the world should become small for you at some point, it’s already small for you, and everthing you say out of that comes from the assumption of smallness. It no longer speaks into a world beyond the little circle. It colors only inside the lines.

By way of conclusion, I’ll say that I think the small or large world are basically expressions of faith. The small worlder could be wrong – the world could consist of something more than they are familiar with. I tend to think that’s pretty likely – especially since, when people describe to me how the world is, how it works, what it consists of, how it’s arranged – I’ve already usually experienced a much broader world than that – they would have to assert that my experiences were imaginary – but I find most small worlders haven’t been very far from home – so it’s not really a debate you can have.

The big worlder could be wrong – the world could be “simple” as somone I dated once used to say. It could be summed up rather easily. In which case, all the experiences which suggest it’s much bigger are indeed a figment of the imagination. Except that the simplistic view seems to always be a summary of “god”-given principles or some other such mythos – so it’s contradictory. If the world really is small, where is there room for “god” in it? Or is that “god” not involved in it at all? In which case, what’s beyond? Maybe what big worlders mean by “the world is big” is that we can imagine, too, something beyond, and it doesn’t seem to be limited by the assumptions about the world that so many religious people (and their ideological equivalents – whether statists, socialists, whatever) have scribed like a line on a piece of paper.

People sometimes ask why I live an experimental life, as though (you can hear it in their tone), there’s something “strange” or “suspect” about it. Already, the small world, you see. It’s precisely because the world is big. The world is always bigger than what we think it is. The world is an open place that can’t be comprehended – because we are more limited than we think we are. We are not everything, we are not all seeing, we don’t grasp it – we live lives striving to touch it and learn it – like a marriage or a real friendship.

The moment we think we really have summed up another person in some principle, idea, political position, religious affiliation, we’ve conceived of the small person – we no longer love them, no longer are their friend, no longer are engaged in a relationship. The same is true with the world – when we do that to the world – we are no longer living in relation to the world, but have disengaged from it, reducing it to a proposition. I live an experimental life, because I live in a big world, with big people, and in relation to both. The relationships that don’t prosper, with me, are not because I conceive them as too small, but because they cannot conceive me, and the world, as big enough.

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