The problem of what and whom to trust or distrust is far older (though my niece and nephews might be shocked to hear it) than I am, but it remains a puzzle to me, too. In some ways, I suppose, the difficulty only increases with the passing of time, both personal and historical. As I get older and, theoretically at least, more mature and educated, I should have a greater base of knowledge and experience and sharpened observational powers and discernment. As history flows forward and the world grows smaller through the connections of increased mobility and communications, there are exponentially more points of view, levels of experience and learning, and sources of information to be sorted. Yet each generation, each individual, is generally born with no more innate wisdom and perception of fact-vs.-fiction than the ones who’ve gone before. We—individually and corporately—have had the opportunity to not only be taught by previous generations and their experience and learning, but also an unprecedented ability to go places, do things, and otherwise see with our own eyes what is possible on this earth. Yet there remains no shortage of people who mistake their opinions or values for facts, and demonstrable fact for somebody else’s ill-informed opinion if it doesn’t suit them.
When our classical predecessors told about the defeat of Troy by canny Greeks who tricked the Trojans into hauling a massive equine sculpture into the city as a victory trophy when it was actually full of Greek operatives who emerged by night, opened the city gates, and let their fellow soldiers in to attack [the standard modern interpretation of the tale], they tapped this universal theme. Whether it was clever subterfuge or a foreseeable pattern in war tactics didn’t matter so much, perhaps, to the ordinary Trojan citizen waking up to the sight of a Greek sword overhead, but any survivor of the battle must surely have considered whether he might have realized the ‘gift horse’ of left behind treasure was such an improbability as to be highly suspicious. A number of citizens did, apparently (as told in other parts of the Trojan Horse story) come to this conclusion, but such is our nature: there’s always someone making a counter-claim, asking the opposing question, and coming to an equally fervent yet incompatible Truth.
It’s on this ambiguity of our understanding and interpretation that American politicians and their supporters, no matter what the Issue or which side of it, thrive. That’s not merely an aside, but a fairly typical example of our quotidian practices. How easily we attach to our ideas, and how hard it is to persuade ourselves, let alone anyone else, that those ideas might merit frequent reexamination.
Ultimately, I tend to think there are relatively few absolutes beyond being Alive or Dead in this realm of ours. The marvels of the world, as little as we know of it, are compelling and astonishing enough to seem beyond pat answers and fixed realities. But I also think that if our existence has any cosmic purpose, then chances are pretty decent that we’ve been set to a few basic tasks and given a few tools with which to attempt their accomplishment. Task: question; wonder. Tools: observation, cogitation, research, testing, conversation, reasoning, challenging, and returning repeatedly to the questions and wonderment. All of these, in endlessly rearranged repetitions, fill our tool and skill inventories.
What was considered self-evident Truth might prove to have some wiggle room for better understanding or a new reality in the long run: a human does not, as once believed, have to sprout feathers in order to achieve flight more extensive and less potentially final than that made by falling off a cliff. What was impossible may become possible. Complications remain. Humans disagree on what is or isn’t incontrovertible. No universally recognized and accepted magic surtitles appear, blazoned on the sky, that define fact, fiction, falsehood and firm truth for all people, for all time. We interpret and surmise. The very ability for the human brain to entertain two opposing potentials simultaneously enough to formulate and ask a question assures me that, answer or not, we will always find ample possibilities for disagreement. And also that we can keep moving forward. Even under or across a drawbridge. Even on—or in—a horse.