A Line From Hamlet

Some sentences inspire and cause the reader to pause and take note. They draw the reader deeper into a book or film or television show. In this ongoing segment I comment on sentences I find inspirational, intriguing, or revealing of human nature in some way. What does the sentence mean in the context of the story from which it is drawn? What does it mean to me? What we can take from it and apply to the real world? Without further ado, I wish I wrote…

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hamlet is arguably one of Shakespeare’s greatest and longest pieces of literature. The lead character Hamlet is dealing with the murder of his father. The scene in which the line is spoken takes place when the ghost of Hamlet’s father advises that he, the king, was murdered. In comes Horatio and Hamlet explains the conversation he’s just had with the ghost.

Horatio and Hamlet are both university educated, rare in Shakespeare’s time and rarer still in the time depicted in the play, and Horatio finds it difficult to believe in a talking ghost. Hence Hamlet’s line, which paraphrased, means there are things even the most educated of us do not know. If you think you know everything you’ll miss an awful lot in your life.

Hamlet’s sentence still resonates today. In science it reminds me of the English botanist J. B. S. Haldane’s 1927 line about the universe: “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” In this case the use of the word queerer is the traditional one, meaning strange, rather than the contemporary one, meaning homosexual. The line has been recast many times with the word stranger replacing queerer, which is an edit I prefer.

The knowledge that we, as a species, don’t know everything is powerful. It provides humanity the fuel to search for answers to our deepest questions, which leads us to further questions we never would have asked in the first place. It’s what drives us to the stars, to the depths of the oceans, to the tops of mountains, to different countries and ultimately to further understanding.

Yet today, we as individuals don’t want to admit we are wrong let alone admit we don’t know something. Each side to any debate or controversy is so certain they are correct; they alone have the right answers. We have become thoroughly invested in our belief of being right that it becomes part of our being. So much so that even when confronted with solid facts proving we are wrong the facts are ignored, diminished and mocked.

This attitude carries over to debates between differing perspectives. This is where some don’t want to admit that someone else has a completely different, yet valid, view of society borne out of their own experiences. The marginalized must fight for their own perspective to be accepted by the general public. The plight of LGBTQ people is a prime example. People who believe their sexuality is different from the norm are experiencing hate from many in the general population for having the audacity to fight for their way of life, to fight for their right to exist as they, themselves, see fit.

Everyone has a right to exist, a right to safety, and a right to be protected under the law. Yet everyone seems bent on pushing their rights to the detriment of another’s rights. Religion feels particularly hard pressed right now. Diminishing attendance in a secular west is leading to a fight response by many religious sects. I empathize. Religious people feel attacked, belittled and threatened. So too, do LGBTQ people. Everyone in some way or another feels attacked. This phenomenon doesn’t make for a harmonious community.

Forcing a Christian bakery to bake a gay wedding cake does nothing but fan the flames of indignation. Forcing LGBTQ people to conform to a simple dichotomy of sexuality that others deem correct, is demeaning. Both acts create walls and chasms between the two groups.

Dialogue, education, and acceptance are needed: dialogue with those that disagree with us, education about an opposite perspective or point of view, and acceptance that not everyone will agree. This isn’t easy and as always the age old problem of stubborn ignorance will always be a factor.

I’m reminded of the trip my wife and I were fortunate enough to take to Fiji to help build homes with Habitat for Humanity. We were living in Japan at the time and my wife wanted to do more than just be a tourist. So, fresh off my Anthropology degree we landed in beautiful Fiji. We were driven to a little village to build two homes for which we had raised money. I was being an ethnographer of sorts, noting rituals and mannerisms, observing interactions between the villagers, trying to log everything. To my horror I thoroughly shamed myself when I, in a panic to remember the rituals of drinking kava, ended up spilling it all over myself. I thought I had insulted them, but the villagers were kind and simply handed me another. I felt embarrassed.

Over the week we were there I saw the old, traditionally built huts and how they used the local trees and leaves to construct them. They felt cooler and better to me. I suddenly felt that we were dictating to the Fijians how to build their homes with concrete and steel. I felt I was invading in some way. It was a difficult time for me, being in a paradise such as that with concern about what we were doing. Until, that is, I spoke with a family for whom we were building a home. I asked if they were happy with their new home. The father burst out into a wide smile and vigorously nodded yes. He explained it will last longer, provide more protection, and help him raise his family.

My own hubris led me to a perspective or view that was not the case at all. An honest discussion cleared that up. Some people think talk is cheap, but without it everything else becomes much more expensive.

How do you think we should bridge the deepening divides between us? How do we help ourselves see the perspectives of others in a non-threatening way? A civil discourse about our civic strife is the only kind accepted here.

Thanks for reading.

Photo by Jan Sundstedt from FreeImages

A Line From Chernobyl

Some sentences inspire and cause the reader to pause and take note. They draw the reader deeper into a book or film or television show. In this ongoing segment I comment on sentences I find inspirational, intriguing, or revealing of human nature in some way. What does the sentence mean in the context of the story from which it is drawn? What does it mean to me? What we can take from it and apply to the real world? Without further ado, I wish I wrote

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

This line is spoken by Valery Legasov, played wonderfully by Jared Harris, in the HBO mini series Chernobyl. In the Soviet Union of the 1980s every attempt was made to remove, hide, or otherwise cover up any issue which might make the Soviet Union look incompetent. As one can imagine a bureaucracy was built up to ensure that secrets of state mistakes were not revealed. It made for a happy country where nothing could be believed. Everything had a note of propaganda to maintain the illusion of success for the mother country.

You see this process of hiding the truth played out in the series right from the first episode where reactor technicians report to their superiors that the reactor has exploded. The supervisor response is that reactor did not explode. They repeatedly say it cannot explode. Handcuffed by years of toeing the communist line the supervisors fail to act properly. Those at the highest echelons of power fail to act properly as well. They’re more concerned with image and appearance rather than reality and safety. It’s not until the true extent of the situation, and the dire circumstances of failure, is forced upon them before they begrudgingly start to respond.

To this day officially only 31 people died from the disaster at Chernobyl. Unofficial estimates place that number decidedly higher, at 90,000.

The first sentence ‘Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth’ sets up the eventual downfall in the second. A lie is a deliberate act; a choice made to deceive. Therefore by our own actions we incur the consequences, we become subject to something unpleasant because of our own behaviour. That something is a debt, something owed, to the truth. If this debt is like a loan from a bank there will be interest; a compounding of the lie’s affects. This means there could be a compounding of the need to deceive. One lie leading to another.

The second sentence ‘Sooner or later that debt is paid’ essentially says everything will come out in the end. This repayment usually is an unwilling act. Think of a politician, trying to downplay the lies they’ve told. Or someone lashing out in anger because they’ve been caught in a lie. Either way everything comes out in the end.

When I was perhaps ten years old my brother and I played with the neighbour’s grandchildren whenever they visited. They were two boys around our age. One day, for whatever reason, I told them that one of my brother’s friends saw his dog get hit by a car, right in front of him. Then, I continued, as he went to retrieve said pet he was hit by a bus right in front of his mother.

At the time I thought it was funny. I have no idea why. Just a split second of reckless impulse mixed with tremendous immaturity. Makes for a pleasant combination. Once spoken I thought ok, it’s done, I’ve had a laugh, let’s play. But then something happened that I had not intended. The boys told their grandmother. I saw her weep and instantly understood that a lie can travel very fast in a very short time and cause a lot of pain. A feeling of dread filled me, not of getting into to trouble, but of shame that something I said had a direct negative impact on someone else. There was no curtain of deniability that I could draw around myself. No metaphysical sand I could sink my mind into to ignore what I had done. It was there right in front of me; clear and unmistakable.

I quickly yelled out that I was only joking and that my brother’s friend was fine. He was. I apologized and then raced inside and hid in my room for the rest of the day. In that moment I realized there were consequences for the words I chose. Now when I joke I make sure I don’t let anyone leave the conversation believing what I’ve said to be true. As well, I don’t joke about people dying like that. I’d like to think I’ve matured a little.

Not everyone sees the consequences of their lies so plainly, so directly. Imagine if people could fully perceive what affect their lie will have on the world? In an age of fake news, deep fake videos and misinformation many people are so intent on the ends they have little regard for the means. The goal of getting more followers by posting incendiary or false narratives seems, for many, to trump honest debate and collaboration. Either way the consequences of lying will catch up, if not publicly then at least in one’s own mind. When that happens there can be a lot of pain. Regret is a patient beast and it will pounce eventually.

Lies and truth. Of course the world is not always so binary. There are lies, minor misstatements, that people say to avoid hurting another’s feelings. ‘Supper was delicious.’ ‘I like that colour on you.’ ‘I had a fun time at the Taylor Swift concert.’ These lesser lies have been built into our social fabric to ensure some kind of cohesion; to sand out the rough edges of society so everything is smooth for all.

Are these little lies harmless? Maybe, maybe not. What they definitely are is a failure to tell the truth in such a way so as to cause minimal pain. I’m guilty of this failure from time to time because it’s difficult to express contrary or negative opinions in a kind way. A minor lie is easier, quicker, and less painful than telling the truth. But the truth will come out eventually.

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

Photo by Lorenzo González from FreeImages