The Pensive Middle Distance

*Posted by Kirk Spencer

Click here to see a donkey talk and fly.

“Then he kind of looked off into the distance.  So that was worthless to me.  I want to know, for God’s sake.”

~ Pat Smith
She just wants to know how
(and maybe why) her son died
in the Benghazi Attack.

“His face was looking at me, but his eyes were looking over my shoulder like he could not look me in the eye.”

 ~ Charles Woods
He just wants to know who
ave the command
not to rescue his son 
in the Benghazi Attack.

It’s been many years, but I remember it like it was yesterday.  I walked into the living room and my three year old son was coloring on the wall.  He was concentrating so hard on his “masterpiece,” he didn’t notice I was standing right behind him.  Eventually he glanced over his shoulder and saw me watching him; and, after a slight delay, spun around, facing me and hiding his purple crayon behind his back.  I then said, “What have you done!” He looked away into the middle distance and replied, “It wasn’t me!  It was Koby!”  (Koby was our Chihuahua puppy.)  My son saw me seeing him do it!   And yet he still denied it to my face.  And for just a moment, I got the impression that my son believed that he could make his words true just by saying them.  But that’s crazy!  Or I thought it was, until I remembered my University Years.

At University, I learned that “reality” is a dynamic system, especially in the developing minds of children—they have so little experience with real reality.  I learned that when we grow up our “reality” migrates from mental phantasies, to sensory experiences, to a world full of unseen, yet constant, transcendental, universal and orienting forms—things like Meaning and Truth.  It is these absolute foundational forms that allow us to make sense of mere sensory phenomena as well as the world of our imaginations.   This all made sense to me (because of my foundations).  However (here’s the crazy part), I had professors who tried to convince me that these foundational, absolute, transcendental and universal forms (such as truth and meaning) were only delusions.  I remember thinking (though I never asked) if they were adding this new delusion they called Anti-Foundationalism to all the rest.  As best I understood, this new foundation of Anti-Foundationalism was a kind of hopeful middle distance between (or beyond) all realities where things seem to constantly undermine themselves and everything else.  To “change” was not a change to something else (something better or worse), but—without foundations—“change” would become a way-of-life that would lead to true freedom in a totally contingent existence.  As I listened to my professors, I felt their hope (if you can call it that) was in escaping anything fundamental or foundational through constant change—constantly keeping all their “options open”—constantly generating appropriately constructed divergent narratives to accomplish whatever they wanted.  I know this sounds unbelievable.  I didn’t believe it either until I signed up for a doctoral course called “Political History.”   I thought it was a course on the history of things political.  I was wrong.  It was course about how to use “History” for political purposes.   In other words, how to build divergent narratives about what happened in the past (revisionist history) to get people to do what you want them to do in the present.

If it is true that “reality” is a dynamic system that grows as we grow, then if we deny the more mature “delusion” of absolute, transcendental and universal things, there is a risk of returning to childish conceptions of reality where there is no reality beyond just “what we want.”  And, as when we were children, we might believe that if we say something, especially with enough feigned sincerity, it will be so—that we make our own truth.  And if we really believe this, we might also believe that “Koby really did do it!” or “These are not the droids we are looking for.”   I know it’s unbelievable.   So keep disbelieving, because if the Anti-Foundationalist can convince everyone to believe it, it will be…

Nah…  I’ll never believe that.

I now have three teenagers living in my house.  We are no longer debating about Koby and coloring.  However, our debates do often involve their “divergent narratives” (false realities).   It all begins when they are confronted with the falseness of their false reality.  They immediately pretend ignorance.  If this doesn’t work (and it never does), then the very event that was just recently unremembered is suddenly misremembered and twisted and revised beyond recognition, involving putting words in my mouth and in the mouths of others—usually just the words needed to establish their innocence.  I usually counter with factual evidence; to which they say that I am “cherry picking” things that make them look bad and that I just don’t understand…  So when I quote their actual words, they bring out the big guns by drawing attention to the tense of verbs (especially “be” verbs);  or they argue about the dictionary meanings of their words (rather than the clear implications); or, if that doesn’t work, they have been known to completely make up new definitions.  However, in all of this, I can tell when I’m getting close to the true truth, because they begin to vigorously interrupt me, talking over me, until I stop; and then, in their mindless and incoherent fumbling, it becomes obvious they really didn’t have anything worth saying;  they just wanted me to stop talking.  It is usually about this point that their belligerence begins to show in the form of sophomoric sarcasm, involving annoying little laughs, rolling of the eyes, a mocking tone of voice and patronizing definitions of obvious things (like what a submarine is).

As the facts begin to become obvious, even to them, my teenagers will not only deny the facts, they will go on about how offended they are that I could even say such a thing as that is something that they “just do not do.”   Then, as their case begins to evaporate before their eyes and they cannot think of anything else to say, they become passive-aggressive, alternating between big toothy grins and feigned indignation in hopes of hiding their subterfuge.   And finally, in an attempt to put an end to the interrogation, they cross their arms (as crossing their fingers would be too obvious); they state the falsehood loudly and with conviction while looking slightly askance to avoid eye-contact; then they slightly lift their chin to suggest pride in their proclamation.  Finally, while holding this pose, standing still and staring forward with a look of self-satisfaction and just a hint of distain, they fix their eyes on the middle distance and, for just a pensive moment, they wait patiently for my vote of approval.

And it is a very important vote—if you know what I mean…

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