My Problem

Though you would not know it by how infrequently I update my essay site, I have lots of subjects that I would like to write an essay about. Yet, on this blog I rarely touch upon those subjects about which I wish to write an essay because I am afraid of ruining the effect of my future essay. To understand this absurd hang up, you need to understand my conception of what makes a good essay.

To my mind, a properly written essay (or book, or poem, or any other serious work) should help readers see the common revelation (to use a theological term) with new eyes. Anything that hinders people from seeing should be avoided.

Articulating what I mean by this is quite a challenge since I do not agree with the meaning that most people attribute to the term common revelation. For most people, a common revelation is a term that is used to mean a revelation that is accessible by reason. To my mind, that is entirely missing the point.

But that subject is really best left for an essay (and someday, I intend to write one on the subject). I only bring this matter up because it underlies my idea that there is a difference between being shown something and being told something even within the context of ideas.

I say “even within the context of ideas” because the difference should be obvious outside the world of ideas. We all know that seeing something is a lot different then hearing something described, right?

Even though we would all accept this as an obvious truth, some people would have a harder time accepting that any meaningful difference could be drawn between being told about an idea and seeing an idea. But because I am silly enough to believe that there is a type of universal revelation that transcends all of us, I think that we can make a distinction between seeing and being told in the realm of ideas.

To put this idea crudely, when you see an idea your own metaphorical eyes are testifying to you. You don’t have to interpret what you see the same way as other people do, but you cannot dismiss what you see without dismissing your own metaphorical eyes.

On the other hand, if someone tells you something you are merely the recipient of what they perceive. Your own witness of the idea does not come into play. You either accept or reject what other people are telling you.

In other words, if you get people to see an idea, you are appealing to something that they already have (what I am calling metaphorical eyes). When you are telling people something, you are acting as if you possess everything they need.

I see the process of being able to show someone an idea as being instrumental to helping people grow because you are helping them develop something that they already posses. But I see the process of telling someone something as tending to hinder growth because you are setting yourself up as some kind of demi-god who can provide everything that someone needs to understand an idea. This hinders their ability to see things for themselves.

Even in the non-metaphorical world, you can have a situation where if you tell people certain things you can prevent them from seeing things. Put it another way, if a label is slapped on something it can sometimes get in the way of people seeing what is really there.

As an example, I read a story of an army Green Beret who was told in training that trip wires could not be seen. In other words, his training labeled those trip wires as being invisible. True to his training, he never did see the trip wires. But his native bodyguards saw them every time. What you think you will see often governs what you do see. Understanding something does not come from knowing the label, it comes from being able to see.

Now normal conversation and normal blogging are all about slapping labels on things. I would even characterize most arguments that utilize “facts” as being all about telling and not about showing.

After all, most arguments that use facts are structured so that you must accept/reject the way that the facts in question are being used. You are being told what the facts mean, not being presented with a vision that depends on the testimony of your own “revelation” for its power. To put it another way, when the facts come with labeled meaning, they have little use. Facts that are labeled are facts that don’t teach you much.

Having said that, I must confess that labeling and “telling” are unavoidable methods of communication. In most situations where normal communication is employed, people need the accept/reject simplicity that labels and “telling” provide. In fact, I don’t believe it is possible to completely avoid labels even for those people who are trying to show their audience something as opposed to tell them.

Yet I still hold that there is a difference between using labels as the basis for a vision that you are trying to convey and having labels be the main focus of your communication. I believe that you can convey something that transcends labels and calls upon people’s common revelation even though you must sometimes make recourse to “telling” and labeling in the course of presenting that vision.

To me, this is the reason that Shakespeare’s appeal has lasted far beyond his own time. What Shakespeare shows us about human nature calls upon supporting testimony from inside ourselves. We might not interpret what he shows us the same way he did, but through his work we are able to better perceive a common revelation.

But if you can accept this, then we are back to the previously mentioned problem of how labels often prevent us from seeing. This is an intractable problem because the reason that we need labels and the reason that labels prevent us from seeing things are one and the same.

We humans need to keep limits on the scope of our thoughts in some way. We say that this man is a conservative or this man is liberal because we are finite creatures who do not have the time to fully explore everyone’s views. By labeling people, we are able to convey a lot of information with very little work. This saves our finite mental capacity for other tasks.

The flip side of this is that by slapping a label on people we also often prevent ourselves from hearing what people really have to say. In a world that is full of talking heads, this is not always a problem. But when I observe the world around me, I can’t but help think that this is often gets in the way of personal growth. Our thoughts become trapped in our own labels.

The example of political labels is a simplistic way of expressing the problem. In reality, labels shut down our “vision” in many areas far outside of people’s personal political views. The labels that we have applied to things confine our own thoughts by more than we can know.

To me this is a scary thought.

And fear can be a good thing. But it can also be a bad thing. A lot depends on what the fear drives you to do.

One of the bad things that fear of labels and of “telling” does to me is that I tend to overvalue complexity. In my twisted mind, if you are complex enough, you are automatically safe from all the bad things in labeling and “telling.”

But this is far from the truth. Labeling can be complex, and showing people something can be disarmingly simple. The real difference between the two has nothing to do with simplicity or complexity. The real difference stems from the authority that you are trying to base your argument off of. Are you trying to base your presentation off of your ability to present truth in a prepackaged and complete form? Or are you trying to base your presentation off of the idea that everyone has some kind of witness to the truth?

Even though I know this is what truly separates telling from showing, I often feel I need to treat an idea that is important to me in the most complex way imaginable. If I don’t, I feel like I am labeling or telling. And I fear that if I label my ideas by treating my ideas simplistically, then I might cause people to be blinded to what I try to show them later on. In other words, people might pre-judge my complex work by my simple work. The horror!!!!

This fear has also caused me to start and reject a number of essays because they were too simple. The last essay that I pushed out I made myself finish even I thought it was simple and more based on telling than showing. I kind of hoped that by making myself do this I would break the fear that kept me from writing essays. It did not succeed.

In reality, I know that this fear is the same fear that leads people to want to tell when they really should be showing. It is the desire to force people to see your work the way you want them to see it.

People who are gripped by this fear don’t want to show people their ideas because that gives people the option of interpreting it as they like. Telling people, on the other hand, means that you can dictate to people how they have to take your work. When you tell people something, the only option that they have is to reject it or accept it.

The moral of all this would seem to be that I ought to start talking about the issues that I care about and trust to God to see that they show instead of tell.

Yet I can’t but help feeling that every time I give myself permission not to worry, I wind up telling instead of showing. Most of this blog has been about telling instead of showing. The essay that I forced myself not to worry about seemed to me to be mostly about telling. The work that I don’t worry about does not seem to be worth much.

On the other hand, the only two essays that I was even halfway happy with just about killed me to write because I worried about them so much. The thing is, I don’t know if I wound up being halfway happy with them because I allowed myself to write about things that I cared about or because I worried about them so much.

In the absence of fear can I actually write well? And if I need the fear to be able to write well how can I overcome the fear enough to write?

Maybe I need to be like O’ Henry and take up drinking.

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