He would say this every time I was celebrating a social improvement by adding a new dot to a line I started tracing on the wall, the line reaching out toward its final point, an ideal just society.
– You know, everything can suddenly change and go all the way back – my father would pause behind me.
– No it can’t. We won’t go back. Racing or stumbling, but we are moving forward, and we are not returning to what we’ve left behind – I would reply, genuinely convinced that every new dot on the line wasn’t marking just an accidental turn of affairs, but was tracking a naturally unfolding series of events, lined up by evolving history. Every dot was a point of no return, for “once we get to know that something is true, is good, is just, we cannot simply forget it”, I would say, triumphantly finishing a swirl of a new dot on the line, jotting down the date of another social improvement.
– It is not like realizing the Earth is round – my dad shook his head.
But I knew it was. Now that we have figured it out, how could the whole world go mad and wake up one day believing the Earth is flat? “Nonsense!” – I mouthed to the wall.
In those moments, it was hard not to hate his look. That kind and all-knowing look of “take your jacket, and you’ll thank me when the night gets cold”. The look that made me shrink, while his eyes and (I’m sure imaginary) raised index finger grew out of proportion, their sheer size and authority the only arguments to support his claim. I was expected to succumb to Experience and Wisdom and acknowledge it was better for my own sake to take such warnings without discussion. Complicating my case, my dad actually had experience (I once caught a glimpse of it in a box where he kept it), and I was convinced he was wise, mostly because he was unwilling to admit it (I already started to recognize the subtle signs of a mind humbled and haunted by the vastness of unknown that opens up through wisdom).
But when he would start his “everything can change” and “one day we may all be knocked down a few dots back on your line before we know it”, I knew his wisdom was silenced by his fears. That did not make him any less wise, but added complexity. I knew he was afraid of falling back down the line. My optimism and forward confidence only added to his fears. He could not help feeling the pain of my imminent fall, and I could not help repeating my convincingly tautological argument: “What’s good is good. How can it turn out to be bad?”
I never questioned the assumption behind my reasoning, that everyone would recognize what’s truly good once they see it.
I kept adding dots to the line on the wall, writing down brief descriptions of each improvement in society and celebrating every one of them. My dad would go by and say the same thing every time he would see me working on the line. I wondered about the sources of his stubborn conviction that everything can change suddenly. Did he know something about human nature that I didn’t know? Did he believe in some inherent flaw that dooms us to turn away from our own well-being once we get too close to it? Or was it something about human history? Perhaps he knew that things can change suddenly because it happened before. Or perhaps he wasn’t convinced about anything at all other than randomness of everything that happens to us in life?
Suddenly, things changed.
I stared at my line in disbelief. My dad never told me “I told you”. His eyes were sadder than mine, for he had been right.
The colors in the streets faded, and people’s faces acquired an expression I had never seen before.
I had trusted so much the weight of moral values, their capacity to guarantee happiness by grounding us in the universal good of human well-being. I could not believe these values were not the solid core, the heavy center of attraction, but the flimsy shell that could be shed and lost from one moment to another.
They could. They were not pushed out by other values, not immediately replaced by something else. Instead, what had made the original values necessary, what used to give them more weight than to any other value that was not based on goodness – all that simply dissipated.
Gravity vanished. We were not grounded in well-being anymore.
There we were then, suspended in the air, not too high, not too low, still within the shadows of the buildings. Enough not to reach the ground, not to fly away. Our movements, our actions, were more arbitrary than ever. Eventually, even our beliefs and desires became arbitrary, weightless, as if our mental states themselves lost orientation and direction, unaffected by any reason, unmotivated by any will.
– And now what? – I confronted my dad – Where are we going from here? In what direction? Relative to what are we going to jump or fall?
– Now some other gravity will come, and everything will settle down in places, according to it.
– Some other gravity? I do not understand. There is only one kind of gravity. The right one.
My dad finally revealed to me (or had he been saying it all along?) that the gravity I was raised in had been arbitrary. And that it was actually by accident that in that gravity, moral values and well-being happened to be the center of attraction, the coincidence that I took to point to the right absolute location and direction of our society. Alas, there had never been such a thing as “the gravity”.
Eventually, people started falling down to a new center of gravity. Giving up to it, or perhaps, seeking it.
I abandoned my line on the wall. It took me many years to build a theory of human nature that explained why social reality does not run on principles of people’s well-being. Why gravity is arbitrary and only by chance can we get it right. And when I did develop this theory, I did not want to accept it.
So I built a conceptual and material mechanism to simulate the reality I believed in. A gravitational force consisting of my best definitions of the concepts necessary to hold and sustain life, constructed and held together with the assumption that once our truth-seeking mind gets to know these concepts, it will never go back to the old ignorance. A wonderful bubble in which well-being was so obviously and easily attached to life, that the accusation of being detached from the outside reality was not enough to dismiss it.
All my efforts were spent on defying the new arbitrary gravity. I grew old. Now, perhaps due to some deficiency in my reasoning capacity, I cannot discern anymore where the right, unreal reality ends and the real, the wrong one starts.
The incapacity to tell real from unreal does not bother me. Whatever is in my mind is trustworthy enough to count as real to me. It is the blurring of the boundary between right and wrong that I find disturbing. I understand it now: this must be the relativism that was behind my dad’s “everything can change”. I wonder if he arrived there as a consequence of a deficiency in reasoning, like me, or he was driven there by disenchantment with an arbitrarily changing reality.
I hope things will change, suddenly.
forest house, boston, March 15th 2013