The New York City subway system has made me a smarter person.
Bold statement, perhaps, but allow me to explain. In this previous blog post, I shared about my still recent quasi-move to New York. As I’ve settled in to life in the big city, I’ve had to make some adjustments to my daily routine. As I’ve written about frequently here, I travel. A lot. To make me feel a bit more connected to home, my normal routine had been to spend my morning ablutions and commute streaming one of my local radio stations from Louisiana. Ever since my early private eye days, listening to either radio or audiobooks during long surveillances and long commutes had become an ingrained habit, and this one small step made me feel closer to home.
But here, the commute is not in a rental car between yet another airport and yet another hotel. No, here the commute is spending quality time with a couple of hundred strangers locked in a metal can leagues under the surface of the earth. Yeah, it’s just as much fun as it sounds. Among the multiple surprising, um, benefits this commute has to offer is the lack of consistent wi-fi or cellular data. No streaming local radio show. Bye bye, routine.
So, it was time for a new habit. I elected to explore podcasts I could download to my phone and enjoy independent of an internet connection. With the near-infinite selection afforded me, I chose to be very intentional about what topics I would explore. None of the stand-up comedians’ shows. None of the entertainment industry updates. And for the love of all Republican and Democrat gods, nothing political. Instead, I committed myself to things that would truly stimulate some worthwhile thinking.
The podcast world, in all its splendor, did not disappoint. Each one I’d pick would engender additional recommendations based on my choices. Freakonomics, TED Talks, Stuff You Should Know, Curiosity, Hidden Brain, and so many more. I found myself engrossed in discussions about a myriad of topics I never would have even thought to wonder about otherwise. Can animals use currency? What does drowning feel like? Did Lizzie Borden really give her mother forty whacks?
Between my own conscious choices and the creepy-but-dammit-it-works Apple algorithms, I came to recognize a pattern in the podcasts now dominating my mornings and evenings: we humans don’t know what we think we know. “Facts” from historical events that we all just knew were true, simply weren’t. Things we’d dismissed as merely folk legends might just have a horrifying basis in truth. (Do some research into the actual facts behind the Pied Piper of Hamelin and then try to sleep – go on, I dare you.)
But I found this pattern to be true on a more personal, social level as well. Most Americans agree that the mainstream media is biased against a certain political view. But what if I told you that both the right and the left believe this? They can’t both be correct, can they? No sacred cow was safe from the Founding Fathers, to gun rights, to immigration reform, to Climate Change, to very modern debates like Net Neutrality: the generally accepted “facts” are sometimes based on little more than vapor.
But the real disturbing things come when you look into our own brains and how they work. We’re so certain of our own memories. But example after example, double blind study after double blind study, they all indicate that the things we remember with such certainty are just plain wrong sometimes.
We humans can be tribal. We want our tribe to be right. We want to answer those nagging questions so much that, I believe, sometimes we forego critical thinking in favor of accepting more comfortable “truths.” As an investigator, it’s impossible for me not to think of the times when everybody “knew” what had happened, but the evidence painted a different story.
This disconnect, this feeling of all our certainty being stripped away, can be unsettling. Frightening, even. For a people who want all the answers, having to admit we don’t know something can go against the grain. We want to know that we’re right, and that our opponents are wrong so much that all our so-called certainty divides us so starkly that there can never be common ground. I’ve come to believe there’s a form of arrogance in that sort of certainty. There can never be dialogue if we can’t even admit that maybe, just maybe, the other side might have a point. But if we can do that, if we can excise ourselves from these new Towers of Babel dedicated to our oh-so-impressive modern intelligence, then I think real wisdom awaits us.
The ancients knew this. My personal faith tradition’s sacred texts tell me to “lean not into my own understanding, and “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Socrates told us that “wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” All of these sentiments agree that true wisdom begins with the recognition of something beyond ourselves. I think my favorite musing on this topic comes from a decidedly more modern source. Don Henley sings, “the more I know, the less I understand.” That resonates with me to my core.
When it comes down to it, I do believe in absolute truth. But I’m wary on the human that claims to have the definitive lock on what that absolute truth is. Everything I’ve been reflecting upon suggests that there is such wonder, grandeur and beauty in our world that refuses to be confined in our tiny, finite brains. The sooner we can accept that with humility, the sooner we can begin to understand it on a deeper level. I truly believe this.
In fact, I’m certain of it.