Postponing the verdict on life

Two quotes struck a chord with me yesterday while scanning material to post to Twitter and Facebook - you do follow us there, right? - because they go to the heart of the IdeaFestival.

"The Essayification of Everything:"

What is behind our attraction to it? Is it the essay’s therapeutic properties? Because it brings miniature joys to its writer and its reader? Because it is small enough to fit in our pocket, portable like our own experiences? I believe that the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America. In fact, I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment 'the essayification of everything.'

'The essay, like this one, is a form for trying out the heretofore untried. Its spirit resists closed-ended, hierarchical thinking and encourages both writer and reader to postpone their verdict on life. It is an invitation to maintain the elasticity of mind and to get comfortable with the world’s inherent ambivalence. And, most importantly, it is an imaginative rehearsal of what isn’t but could be.'

The other is this quote from a brief question and answer exchange between science journalist and author Jennifer Ouelette and astrophysicist Mario Livio posted at Scientific American. Livio, on risk taking and thinking outside-the-box as a critical component of progress:

There are many modern discoveries that were at some level the consequence of serendipity, or initial blunders. Some of the better known examples are penicillin, and post-it notes. In general, a large fraction of the discoveries of new medications is the result of serendipity or, to some extent, 'brilliant' blunders.

One can easily image a public official today outraged over the funding of mold studies. And sadly, "knowing" has always been far darker and more harmful in the hands of the sure. Thank goodness we don't know because change, as it were, is not only ever present but if this research is correct, our willingness to explore and its concomitant call to embrace doubt and uncertainty plays an enormous role in our sense of ourselves. Channeled through exploratory science and intrepid art, through business risk and honest personal reflection, change might just be the key variable in full lives.

So postpone the verdict on life.

Posted recently by Maria Popova, Joss Whedon's recent commencement address at Wesleyan University is chock full of insight into the human condition, including the advice to embrace our contradictions - the urge to love and despise, to embrace and condemn, to make both trouble and meaning. But the observation that "you do not pass through this life, it passes through you" is especially poignant to me. There are as you read this uncounted particles issued from ancient furnaces hot and bright passing through the Earth and your body toward futures and destinations that you and I cannot comprehend. The stuff of life does pass through all of us, and fittingly it's the stuff we can't see. An "elasticity of mind" does not mean minimizing what is known, but acknowledging and becoming comfortable with the thought that what can be known is more than we can imagine, if we first start humbled.

For a few hours and days in September, the festival brings that dazzling variety of life to bear. It is humbling. It is about this too. Stay curious.


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