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Soulful Sundays: The River Bank

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—

We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

-William Wordsworth

Do you remember your first word? Probably not, but whatever it was it was one of the most significant events in your life. It marked your first step in the life-long marathon of classification and dissection of the world around you. You began so many years ago and are still doing it today. Language is our tool to make sense of nature, which is forever surprising us and demanding us to refine that tool. Language, science, and belief systems, in general, are like the banks of a river. They give shape and form to an otherwise wild force. But have no illusions, when the river is beyond containment it will escape. Likewise, if the banks are too contrived or excessive, the water will dry up. How can we work with the flow and not in opposition to it?

As soon as you name something you limit it. The Tao Te Ching mentions this: "the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao." We have multiple examples of this in science and physics where a theory works brilliantly to explain phenomena on one level (take Newtonian Physics for large objects) but is completely irrelevant at another level (say, quantum mechanics). By creating assumptions about how the world operates, scientists and normal people alike run the risk of self-deception. In fact, probably most of what we think we know today will be inaccurate in the future. A proposition like that is both distressing and exciting.

Some would claim that the goal of science is to uncover the truth and eliminate bias (and I believe that to be largely true), except...that which is not deemed as useful or profitable rarely gets studied. This is the sad reality of human society. Utility drives relevance. Even in the arts, where the reasons why something is pleasing may not be expressible, there are powerful forces governing our likes and dislikes nonetheless. Our particular preferences for paintings or music are shaped by cultural, familial, or personal experiences. If you are human, avoiding bias is impossible.

All static systems will eventually fail. In order to persist, theories must be mutable, and this change must be guided by the closest thing to objective reality possible. This is where open dialogue and freedom of speech are crucial. In order to make the necessary changes to a broken system, we must be able to consider all of the options no matter how scary or taboo they are. We must use the very tool that is constraining our thought patterns to set them free--language. It is not a coincidence that language is also mutable. By shaping our speech we shape our world, so why not do so constructively? We are in control of changing the banks of the river with our words, giving the river of emotions and experiences that flows through them a channel to follow. Yes, sometimes the flow will get out of control, but every mishap better informs us of how to work with the water and not against it.

We must learn to respect both the systems of control and the forces we are trying to control. Traditional cultures understood this balance. Ancient systems (like Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western philosophy, or Christianity) codified approaches to dealing with difficult questions, diseases, and worldly struggles, but they never claimed to be above nature, chance, or the divine. If we dismiss this knowledge base out of hand we are giving up on the rich history that brought us to this point. We are insulting our ancestors. We are throwing away our inheritance of the river banks. This is not a sustainable or advisable choice. There is a way to respect the ways of old while encountering the challenges of today. By lashing out in hatred of the system that created us, we are attacking the hand that feeds us.

I have one closing warning. You may be tempted to mistake the vessel for its contents. In an attempt to completely control the chaotic flow of nature you will inevitably choke out its gifts. If you build the banks of your river so high and mighty that you can't actually get down to the water to enjoy it, then what have you actually accomplished? Use language and systems to enhance your experience of life, but never let them replace it. Sometimes we need a little flood to redistribute resources and bring nourishment to dried-up lands. Sometimes a little spontaneous chaos is a good thing. It reminds us that we are still alive.

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