A few columns ago, I wrote that I had great optimism about individuals, but pessimism about humanity as a whole.
At the macro level, I suggested, we seem incapable, collectively, of changing our course on religious and racial prejudice, climate change, politics…
On the micro-level, I recall a train station; a platform packed with commuters heading home.
I asked the man next to me if he would watch my suitcase while I grabbed a fast-food burger. He nodded.
When I came back up, the platform was empty. Except for one man. And my suitcase.
“My train came through,” he explained.
“And you stayed?”
“I couldn’t leave your bag untended,” he said.
His camo jacket, his hat, his accent, suggested that he favoured Jurassic social policies. But he delayed his own trip home, to look after a stranger’s needs.
A reader told me my concept contained an inherent contradiction.
Humanity as a whole is made up of individuals. Logically, therefore, I cannot be optimistic about individuals without also being optimistic about the whole. And vice versa.
I can’t agree. There are discontinuities in everything. Transitions, where one reality morphs into another.
Between the campfire that keeps you warm, and the forest fire that destroys.
Between the child who thinks you know everything, and the teenager who thinks you know nothing.
The rules of sub-atomic physics don’t necessarily apply in carpentry or counselling.
And you never know exactly where, or how, those discontinuities occur.
Nancy Ellen Abrams wrote a book she called A God that could be Real. She starts not with historic doctrines, but with physical phenomena.
One chapter explored the notion that we humans can relate only to beings roughly comparable in size to ourselves. They might be anything from Robbie Burns “wee sleekit cow’rin” mouse to the great whales.
But we cannot empathize with bacteria, too small for our eyes to see. And only a few of us can get our minds around black holes and dark matter – Abrams’ husband being one of them.
We deal with trillion-dollar budgets by lopping off all the zeroes, scaling them down to chequebook accounting.
Abrams’ work suggests to me that there may be many transitions. And that we live between them.
As I’ve written before, I define sin as taking something good, beneficial, healthy and pushing it to an extreme. Too much, or too little.
Too much water drowns us. Too little causes death by dehydration.
Too little medication condemns patients to endless pain. Too much leads to addiction and overdoses.
Too much physical interaction between adults and children can turn into abuse. Too little is neglect.
Thus good shades imperceptibly into evil.
Tragically, we never know the transition point, until we have passed through it. We know what’s right only when we discover that things have gone wrong.
We cross an invisible line, without even knowing that it was there.
My wife’s death a year ago was a clearly defined discontinuity. But a year later, I’m still working through the transition between being married, and not being married.
If the discontinuities – between micro and macro, individual and universal, physical and emotional – were clear and definable, life would be much simpler.
Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.