On living with ambiguity

Those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will recall that its end letter comes down to either a P or a J, denoting perception vs judgment modalities.  P types can tolerate, if not thrive on, open-ended movies.  Conversely, J’s like their movies to end with all the pieces in place.  As essentially an everyday existentialist, I’ve always found bonafide certainty elusive.  Thus, I generally come out in the wash as a P, with speculation often more fun for its U-Turn potential than the dead end of the J alternative.

But hold your horses. This doesn’t mean I’m closed to fixed verities and the closure they provide.  Who wants to cast his fate with an ambiguous lover, or speculate about whether he’ll have his job next month or, omigod, is it cancer?  Like the next guy, I want the bad guys rounded-up and justice meted out.  What a wonderful world it’d be if we could truly accept things as they appear, knowing nobody practices deceit, a world with no need for lawyers to protect us from the fraudulent.  No need for the clergy either to put right God’s way of doing things.  And so with psychiatrists, since there’d be nothing to be anxious about in a world absent of unknowns.  But as Voltaire’s Candide discovered the hard way, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.

I wouldn’t even be writing this entry if it hadn’t been for coming, serendipity fashion, upon Emily Dickinson’s powerful poem, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” with its blunt rendering of our stumbling angst in a cosmos devoid of moon and stars to light our journey through the metaphysical night, reminding me again of ambiguity’s pervasiveness and our struggles to find our way:

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—
A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—
And so of larger—Darkness—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—
The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—
Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Here Dickinson fashions the poem’s edifice by way of analogy from everyday life of our initial difficulty seeing things when suddenly plunged into darkness until our vision adjusts and we find our way, or think we do (“And life seems almost straight”).  The equivocation comes in the persona’s almost, which we mustn’t miss in Dickinson’s typical closet subtlety, perhaps mirroring the metaphysical poets Donne and Herbert she read avidly.

When the narrator tells “Of something in the sight/Adjusts itself to Midnight,” we come to the bottom line of how we manage our journey through the psyche’s dark night (“Those Evenings of the Brain”), perhaps through religious faith, a mainstream fixture for many in the Calvinist Amherst of her time.

My point, and I think Dickinson’s as well, is that in a cosmos absent of Divine revelation and explicit meaning, our need for closure–to abolish life’s curves and set its steps straight, exerts itself in human constructs, epistemologically, whether done through provisos of faith or artist metaphor.

It isn’t just nature that abhors a vacuum.  We despise it too.  In the end, Jung is wrong, for we are all J’s at heart!  Life is very often a search for meaning and, if tenuous in its ambiguity, compels us to define it, however vulnerable its artifice.


The Smile that Hides the Soul

I have a number of books that supposedly clue you into discerning the personalities of people based on their physical gestures, things like hands on hips,  the turned up corners of the mouth, the wrinkling of the forehead or lifting of the eyebrows,  etc.  The problem is that body language can differ from one culture to another.  While close spatial contact with lots of touching may convey caring in, say, a Hispanic culture, it’s apt to raise the specter of territorial invasion among white North Americans.  I know families, for example, that simply don’t touch.

My take on kinetics, or body language, is to approach the subject with caution.  But it’s more than this, too.  I’m simply suspicious of reductionist approaches that promise us a mirroring of the human psyche and, often as not, a means to its manipulation, if we just read the body cues right and fine-tune our approach.

No, we humans are offspring of eons of evolutionary survival stratagems that camouflage thoughts, and with good reason in a world that often cannot tolerate a baring of the soul with its sonar witness to salient distress as a life component we’re uncomfortable  acknowledging.  We feel safer behind walls.

Thus we’re prone to exercising considerable dissembling skills to avoid alienating our fellows and exacerbating our isolation, for no matter what form physical pain, anguish, and grief assume, there’s always the immense individuality of suffering which even the greatest empathy cannot transcend.

Emily Dickinson, like all gifted poets grounded in sensory acuity, knew this well, typically drawing upon Nature for analogies of  concealment, undermining the conflation of appearance with reality in “The Wounded Deer Leaps Highest” with its successive examples of a deer’s leap, a gashed rock, a sprung trap, and, in the human realm, flushed cheeks and even laughter, suggesting a dynamism masking covert wounding:

A wounded deer leaps highest
I’ve hunter the hunter tell;
Tis but the ecstasy of death,
And then the brake is still.

The smitten rock that gushes,
The trampled steel that springs;
A cheek is always redder
Just where the hectic stings!

Mirth is the mail of anguish,
In which it caution arms
Lest anybody spy the blood
And “You’re hurt exclaim.

As the closing stanza poignantly bears witness, we put on a brave act hiding our grief, as though expressing it were a weakness, with resulting pity simply reinforcing our isolated fate.  Culture has insisted men, in particular, should be very good at this.

We are complex in our emotions and body language.  In the space of three years, Dickinson  would lose 26 friends and relatives to death; but she also knew that life goes on and the game must still be played.


%d bloggers like this: