Tag Archives: proportion

Perspective and proportion in the modern era

Life is what you make of it. Literally.

At least, that’s the thought that’s been running through my head of late. I’m currently reading three books at the same time: “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong, “Diaspora Politics” by Gabriel Sheffer (just a little light reading, you understand), and one of my all-time favorites, the complete “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams.

Why yes, it is an interesting combination.

I honestly don’t know how I ended up with these three together, but the end result is that it is occurring to me that there are very few absolute truths in the world. Everything we know is tied up in the lives we live and the worlds we inhabit, which can be infinitely different from those of others. In the second Hitchhiker’s book, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” (probably my favorite in the series), Adams really takes this concept home: we live in worlds that revolve around our own heads.

To show us this, Adams takes our hero (sort of), Zaphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive former President of the Galaxy, and puts him on the abandoned Frogstar World B, where he will be placed in the Total Perspective Vortex, the worst kind of torture in the universe. Here’s how it works: it shows you just how small and utterly insignificant you are to the functioning of the universe. Adams writes:

For when you are given just one momentary glimpse of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here”.”

…And into one end [Trin Tragula, the Vortex’s inventor] plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Of course, Beeblebrox survives the ordeal (I won’t tell you how, but rest assured: it is hilariously Improbable). But the point is that we live in worlds were we are the center of the universe. We are naturally selfish creatures, and it’s not entirely our fault. We don’t have insight into how other people think or live or experience the world. We say, “walk a mile in their shoes,” but it’s not just about the shoes; people walk at different speeds and in different directions.

So how is this related to religion and diasporas? Well, I haven’t gotten though the other two books yet, but already I’m seeing that a lot of what’s being described is basically “the world according to [fill in group/community/country here].” They are not observable facts or objective analyses. When it comes to religion, this might not be so surprising because the most basic factor in a religion, the god, is unobservable. Religion by nature relies on faith to one extent or the other – of course, such faith can appeal to logic, but the appeal must be limited because the object of faith cannot be seen or experienced in a tangible manner. But what is really quite interesting is just how subjective and narrow history can be. You’d think history would be pretty simple: it either happened or it didn’t. The problem is that these facts are not created in isolation nor are they interpreted in isolation.

As a writer, I believe firmly in facts. There are things that happened, and things that didn’t. There are things that exist, and things that don’t exist (or at least cannot be proven to exist by current methods available). There are things that are true, and things that false. Furthermore, each individual has the resources to confirm said facts in a way that was not possible even 30 years ago.

This is important. In an era where many would rather have us believe “alternative facts,” we need to mobilize social media to establish truth from falsehoods and fact from fiction. But this requires a level of personal responsibility from each of us, to be honest, to be accurate, and to own up to mistakes when they are inevitably made, as quickly as possible.

Not everyone will meet that responsibility. And there will always be subjectivity in reporting, whether it’s in journalism or history books or academic papers, because we’re all humans and we’re by nature subjective. But the act of seeking out truth, the act of aiming for objectivity and acknowledging when we are incapable of it, is crucial. We have to try. Our sense of proportion depends on it, because even if we are just microscopic dots on a microscopic dot, we’re not microscopic to each other.

This post was adapted from one that originally appeared on my personal blog, Nadia’s Writing, now defunct.