Part of selfhood, Daniel Dennett tells us, is that each of us is what he calls a “center of narrative gravity”, interactive with other centers but with his or her own story and own set of experiences unlike anyone else’s. My story isn’t very well centered at the moment, with too many writing projects and too many other changes. One of the reasons why I’m not better at centering things close at hand is that I keep looking behind and beyond, reading about the big questions in the background. And with help from Dennett, Hilary Putnam, J-rgen Habermas, Confucius, and the Quran, I’ve come up with some simple points that seem better centered, or at least better circled, than my life or the rest of my writing, and that help me to think about the world around me, near and far, past and present. Here are some things I believe, by the numbers.
One. We have to keep talking to each other, as openly and honestly as we can, all around the world.
Two. One reason (not the only one) why we can manage to talk to each other is that our genes give us a lot of chemistry and neural circuitry in common, and we can make pretty good guesses about the other’s state of mind.
Three. But we are all wired differently, some of us more so than others.
Four. At least as important, each of us is a center of narrative gravity, different from others and only imperfectly accessible to them. We are not equipped with high-speed data ports.
Five. Fortunately, we have inborn capacities for caring for each other; we are wired for empathy as well as for anger.
Six. Because we’re wired for empathy but don’t always understand why the other person wants what she wants, it can be especially kind and life-affirming to help her get it and ask for something in return. Negotiation and trade-off aren’t signs of failure of community but affirmations of the other in her partial otherness.
Seven. Cultural differences are real but in principle bridgeable. They’re larger versions of our individual differences and privacies. Cultures aren’t mirrored spheres that can’t communicate with one another, but skeins, fabrics of transmission and variation, Highland tartans and Ghanaian kinte cloths.
Eight. Some of our best tools for understanding each other are embodied metaphors. For example, metaphors of thirst and a longing for shade can be found across many cultures, from the Twenty-Third Psalm to the Quran and the Hajj pilgrimage to Hindu stories of the reincarnations of Vishnu.
Nine. We can stop a conversation at any time by inflating a real difference into an either-or dichotomy. Religious people do this a lot, when they ask, “Do you believe?” So do professional intellectuals, pursuing their research and the logic of their ideas ever farther out on a cutting edge. Inflation and dichotomy are conversation-stoppers. “Deflation” is a much-used but little-examined metaphor for what we need to do to keep the conversation going.
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