There are a whole host of things that interest me that are the subject of no great focus for academia.
Synchronicity is one of them—meaningful coincidence. A concept introduced by none other than MY MAIN MAN CARL, who was perhaps the king of weird not-quite-science psychology in the early 1900s. (the crown passed eventually to Hillman, who also is a total whackjob of a theorist and whose works I treasure) I rather like synchronicity because it makes it possible to talk about many things which we all notice. The song that comes on the radio at just the right time (a song chosen by an intern we don’t know at a radio station miles away with no reference to our lives whatsoever). Finding the exact right job opportunity just when you decide to change your life. Meeting the perfect person at just the right time in just the right place.
It’s possible to speak synchronicity in the context of other theoretical frameworks. Priming, for example, offers a comforting mechanistic explanation, viewing the human brain as a data-processing machine which utilizes different schema at different times. Looking at it this way, we wear particular cognitive “lenses”, which highlight or downplay details in the world around us (this is how immature people can always pick out a “420” or “69” in a credit card or phone number). When we are “primed” for something (like a gun), we spot it more easily, remain open to it, and are affected by it more dramatically.
Going way over to the other side, we can also talk about Daoism. Like water, if we follow the flow of our life mindfully, without struggling or fighting, then that path will eventually take us to wherever we need to go. When we remain open to the universe, the universe responds—all we have to do is assume the proper place, and the Ten Thousand Things will arrange themselves around us.
(I’ll note here that I’m far from being a scholar of Daoism, and any resemblance between the paragraph above and the actual Daodejing is purely the result of happy mischance)
Where do I go if I want to study that? Where do I go if I want to understand how it is that the “right moment” can be the one we wait for, or can be the one we make happen? Where do I study if I want to explore the many coincidences that make up each human life? Which university can help me investigate the world around us, and the way that world impacts and is impacted by each person in it?
Sonder is a word I use occasionally—a neologism signifying the moment of realization that your own rich life is surrounded by many equally rich lives, most of which will touch yours only for an instant, only from a distance, as a passing car on the freeway or a plane crossing overhead—but all of which are as intense, complex, and laden with private thoughts and significations.
I turned to Anthropology when I was an undergrad. I thought that by studying the people who study human lives, I could develop a greater insight into human lives. Instead I learned a great deal about the study of human lives. Most of my lessons in humanity have come from extracurricular activities—from long nights spent in dormitory doorways, an endless string of stresses, or soft voices in the dark.
Now I’m finished with college. My (dearly bought) degree sits on the wall of my bedroom in a $12 frame, above my antique Don Quixote headboard and just to the right of my autographed Smaug (a treasure in its own right, one of the Hildebrandts’ great works). I’ve learned a lot about books—my head is full of authors, mostly French, mostly dead—and from them I can trace out most of the index of ideas in my brain. But I want to learn more.
I don’t think it’s a kind of learning I can get from college. Undergraduate programs in this nation are undergoing rapid decay, with too many factors to be easily listed. The cost of education still rises, even as government programs are shoehorned into place. The “debate” over “political correctness” rages in the academic sphere. Sexual assault plagues universities across the world (but especially in the U.S.). The academic disciplines have turned inward, becoming trade schools for their own practice, teaching students how to teach more students the things that they were taught as students. What counts as academic practice is changing—there is a Right Way to study, and a Wrong Way, and if you choose the Wrong Way, well, how can you really Know anything meaningful? How can you “situate yourself in the literature?”
Don’t get me wrong—college is critical. I wish everyone had the opportunity to attend a university like the one I did. Even in its present condition, the process of going to school, learning a discipline, and graduating teaches you an immense amount about yourself. Many dedicated people work long (underpaid) hours to ensure the continuing quality of education.
I learned a lot. But I wonder now if ultimately, I learned what I wanted. And I don’t think so. I think learning to understand the world requires a different kind of study—and I want to undertake it. I want to know how it is that coincidences happen—not the simple statistics, but what it means. I want to know why gods of Reason are often sky-gods or sun-gods—what makes Reason the same as Light? Why do we think in analogies and metaphors? Why are we so radically different from one another—physically, emotionally, intellectually, culturally—even if we are so much the same? Why do people who graph onto the same areas of the Myers-Briggs share similar facial structures? How is it we can get a “good feeling” off someone after we have only known them for two minutes? Why do patriarchal systems arise? Why does music exist?
The answers are not purely psychology, or philosophy, or anthropology, or sociology, or statistics, or biology. But these are the old questions. As a teacher of mine (not just a professor, but a teacher) would say: “These are the big questions.”
I can’t lie; I like big questions. This puts me at an unfortunate impasse with most disciplines—when you practice analytic philosophy, or study depth psychology, in order to survive you must narrow your questions. The scope must shrink to one context, one time, one group, one place, one event.
Case studies are good—I don’t mind looking at one person at a time if I have to (though 7 billion is a lot to go through)—but the door has to swing both ways.
What point is there to the pursuit of the finite, if we cannot use it in contemplation of the Infinite?
Isn’t that the point? We are finite, the universe infinite. We use what tools we have to understand what we don’t know. We can never know the Infinite–it is, somewhat by definition, beyond our reach. But as anyone who’s been in love can tell you, it’s not necessary to fully know an infinity in order to understand it.
I’ll close with the only question I ever really ask–the question I mutter to myself under my breath, speak aloud to random strangers, the question that flits through my head at each new experience:
What does it mean?