Life is banal and profound. We all are born, grow, ride the waves of ecstasy and despair, struggle for meaning, and die. Hundreds of billions of us have walked this earth and traversed the same cycle of life and death. To contemplate this number– or even to just pass through a crowded city or airport–can leave our heads reeling with the awareness of our insignificance.
And yet every one of us feels the profound. Feels the sense of wonder. Each one of us is caught up at some moment, struck by the miracles that surround us. The simple, quiet beauty of a butterfly, the stunning power of a storm, and even the sense that each one of us, each individual somehow matters. This is the grand paradox of life—the tension between the banal and the profound. The ineffable.
This is the grain of sand rubbing against our tender oyster flesh, causing constant irritation, and driving us to create a pearl. Art, music, literature, philosophy, science—all are our response to the paradox of life. Each piece of art is another new word in the vocabulary we create in an attempt to express the ineffable. Artists dive into this ineffable and translate what they see through their chosen medium. Philosophers and scientists study and characterize and catalog to try to create a framework of order, to contain the ineffable, to make it comprehensible. Natural scientists look at the world and categorize. They tell us there are three types of rock, and then break these down into subcategories. They have studied all living creatures placing each in its category, arguing endlessly about what belongs where. And religions try to contain “godishness”, to make the mystery less terrifying, make it accessible.
In our drive to create this framework we can delude ourselves into believing we actually know. In trying to see we can blind ourselves. We lose sight of the original paradox that drove us, lose our awe at the ineffable. [This in my mind is where Einstein’s true greatness lies. After developing some of our greatest scientific understanding, he came back in awe to the ineffable, understanding that we still know nothing.]
But everything in life is like a rainbow. Newton looked at the rainbow and divided it into seven colors. But it is in fact a continuous spectrum and by saying the rainbow is made of red orange yellow green blue indigo violet we miss the colors in between and the colors between those. Aristotle did the same with friendship. He says that friendships have three types. But just like the rainbow, friendships come in a spectrum of types, each with its own special character.
We must see “knowledge” as our attempt to simplify the complexity of our world so that we can comprehend it but never lose sight of the complexity. We must look into the ineffable and embrace the terror in our hearts and know it is proof of the profound.