Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner


Originally posted on February 15, 2008

February 15, 2008

One of the developments in the last half century has been an exponential expansion of information, areas of investigation and sub-specialization, and other variables. This is part of the postmodern condition—an accelerated state that differs qualitatively, not just quantitatively, from the early 20th century (which saw the apex of modernity).

I suggest that it has moved from difficult to truly impossible to comprehend the world. (It has been said that we should seek to differentiate between the impossible and the merely very difficult.) In this case, I’m opting for the former. By human comprehension, I mean the goal of really getting it all. I think this goal is actually an expression of a human frailty, a mixture of the childish illusion that we can have it all, and an associated tendency to grasp at life. (From a Buddhist viewpoint, this tendency to grasp is the main source of suffering.)

Huston Smith, the scholar of comparative religion, defined mystery. He said that it is more than a puzzle—there’s a knack to a puzzle; and more than a problem—there is an answer to a problem (most detective mysteries are problems). In contrast, a mystery is one of those kinds of things that the more you discover the more you discover that you don’t know! Many of the frontiers of science are like this—each new breakthrough opens the door to several more challenges. Rather than gradually chipping away at the great unknown, we seem to be expanding its horizons even as we invent, do research, discover. This adds to that aforementioned upward sloping curve of accelerating rates of knowledge.

The appropriate response is to re-adjust our mode of speaking and thinking. The modern goal of controlling the world has become increasingly attenuated: So many advances end up having unintended consequences, complications, side-effects. We need to shift from a slightly grandiose ambition to “have it all”—as may be implied whenever you see words like “fully,” “completely,” “ultimately,” “absolutely,” and the like woven into some otherwise noble-sounding goal.

Appreciating the nature of this next level of complexity leads to recognizing as an emerging quality the reality that we can’t get it all. We need to realistically readjust our goals, to pull back from the aim at full control and instead, address a plausible understanding of the nature of responsibility.

It may be good enough—one of my mantras for coping in today’s world—to accept the middle way of seeking a broad, fuzzy arena in which we can stretch our minds and imaginations and other dimensions of will, while at the same time limiting our reach so we don’t “strain our brain.” (In the field of physical education, there is an increasing appreciation of the idea that “no pain, no gain” is simply not true. Many people can tone up and develop more strength by moving into a realm of stretching and some fatigue, while yet pulling back from doing things that actually hurt. Building my body gradually in an exercise class for Seniors over the last ten years has been most illuminating!) Similarly, excessive mental or philosophical or political goals may be both unrealistic and ultimately counter-productive.

The idea of weaving in the right kinds of surrender and humility into our life plan should become more prevalent in our culture. As it stands, ambition is valued in its most extravagant forms. While I hesitate to devalue those who “go for the Gold,” I think we need to respect those who choose to live more diversified lives and reach their own, often less-than-perfect goals in various arenas. Perfection, after all, is, like the speed of light, an asymptotic limit: The closer you get to the end-point, the more work it gets, rising to an infinite expenditure of effort.

Responsibility, I suggest, involves our own stretching of what we can realistically do, while at the same time recognizing and releasing those elements that are beyond our control. One of the implications of the growing awareness of the complexities of astronomy, sub-atomic physics, biology, history, politics, education, and other endeavors is that there are so many factors, so many influences, that we cannot hope to identify them all, weigh them appropriately, and achieve full control. We can do what we can, and release our childish ambition of total control.

I use the term “greedygrasping” to refer to something beyond mere reaching. The word implies a subtle over-reaching, motivated more by childish illusions and desires than mature assessment of what is reasonable. Greedygrasping a butterfly in one’s hand kills it; it needs to be held (up) but  not held (onto) with an open palm. There’s a fair amount of Buddhist thinking here, it’s true.

The problem with greedygrasping is that it is built into some mainstream philosophies, an implication that truth can be attained, and other fundamental questions solved. So far, none have, not once-and-for-all; that should be a clue. New dimensions and aspects of existence, new perspectives keep cropping up. I’m suggesting, of course, that absolutistic goals are almost by definition foolish.

However, I’m not suggesting that we give up reaching, stretching, trying to build ever more interesting, useful, maybe even impressive “sand castles” of ideas. Yet we should recognize that these are models; it is a game without end for the human mind to build better models. I would even add a mythopoetic angle: What if God loves philosophy, loves the intellectual exercise of stretching, feels this vital dynamic almost sensually, if we can realize that the play of intuition, reason, emotion, imagination, relationships, dialogue, and the like can be experienced as a kind of subtle sense.

The point is that engagement, effort, exploration, and other adventures of the mind need not conflict with a measure of reserve when it comes to seeking or implicitly demanding complete control. Perhaps early adulthood involves (ideally) taking charge of one’s life; but mid-adulthood involves dealing with increasing awareness that taking charge is by no means being in control. There are too many variables, too many factors, and the best one can do is to re-align one’s own attitude, clarify to some reasonable degree one’s own thinking, maintain fairly good relations with one’s allies, friends, and family, and so forth. Into this mixture must be blended a modicum of surrender, self-acceptance, humility, perhaps also leavened by humor and philosophy.


  • the girl from the book store says:

    Hi there. I’ve been wandering around your website tonight and thought I’d let you know that I appreciate this post. I suppose I have entered that middle part of life where I’ve come to accept the fact that I can’t know everything (though I do tend to overthink issues more than most people I know). Philosophy has become a friend rather than that thing that keeps me up at night; for that I am grateful.

    Thank you for the book you gave up to me tonight. That was extremely kind of you.

    I call myself an Atheist in the sense of having no beliefs in gods (rather than believing that no such beings could exist). I respect those Deists I know as freethinkers and can see how their awe for the wonders of life leads them to seek something greater than themselves. For myself, though, I do not feel the pull to want something greater, something other. (I once did, back when I thought I needed to find answers to all of the big questions.) I think I’m happy with a natural perspective. If there are circles beyond this world, I suppose I’ll figure them out when I get there.

    I do mean to explore your website further and to look into the book you suggested. I will try to keep you posted as I mull over the ideas I find intriguing.

    Kindest regards,
    Dana 🙂

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