On Context

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Close both eyes; see with the other one. Then we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened and we find ourselves quite unexpectedly in a new expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love.


~ Gregory Boyle

Context can be a remarkable thing. It is the shadow that adds subtlety to the shape of the world. It is a capability too many of us neglect, and it is a flower easily wilted if not cared for.


Context is the enemy of judgment; where context resides, empathy ensues, and empathy is perhaps the most human of all emotions.


I’ve written before of the power of reading fiction on emotional intelligence. The effect of fiction on your social savvy is primarily due to the strengthened sense of empathy that the context of a particular narrative imbues. Adultery, here, serves as a perfect example. When a dear friend speaks to you of their lover's deceits, your first inclination is to condemn the cheater wholeheartedly. They’ve done something terribly wrong, and hurt someone you love. Disdain seems the most appropriate response.


But imagine that same scenario played out in an epic love story on the big screen- a married woman, while in the park one day with her children, meets the man of her dreams- the one that truly understands her, who inspires her, who fills her with life. She battles these feelings, fending them off with logic and loyalty... but ultimately succumbs to the love that is obviously larger and more powerful than anything she’s ever known. We all know this story- we’ve read it, we’ve watched it, and we rarely wonder why this scenario brings tears of joy, while the same scenario played out in our daily lives inspires quite the opposite feeling.


The difference lies only in context. In a story, we see the context surrounding the situation. In Anna Karenina, we know how imperfect Anna’s marriage truly is, and we cheer, long and hard, for Vronsky and Anna’s love. Had we simply been told, without context, that Anna and Vronsky were having an affair, that Anna is a married woman, we would surely be quick to condemn.


The difficulty lies in knowing just how feeble your sense of empathy is to begin with, and how strong is your propensity to discard context in favor of a particular, more comfortable narrative. In The Irrationality of Irrationality, Samuel McNerney tackles this issue head-on.

This is one of the reasons we humans love narratives; they summarize the important information in a form that’s familiar and easy to digest. It’s much easier to understand events in the world as instances of good versus evil, or any one of the seven story types. As Daniel Kahneman explains, “[we] build the best possible story form the information available… and if it is a good story, [we] believe it.”

Narratives formed by our own fragile psyches are, more often than not, misleading, largely because they leave no room for true context.


Last week, two things of significance happened in this great country of ours: North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment, effectively banning same-sex marriage. In the same week, our President spoke out in favor of extending basic human rights to the gay population. One pernicious aspect of human nature lies at the heart of the outrage felt by those who are quick to condemn the love of two people of the same sex: judgment.


Innumerable atrocities, in thought and in deed, are fueled solely by the fires of judgment. When put under a microscope, however, judgment is proven to be a most irrational and counterproductive concept. Fortunately, judgment withers under the bright light of context. Let’s add some context, then, to our very existence, shall we?


In a Prospect Magazine piece, Martin Rees tells us that “research may open the way for a conceptual shift of Copernican proportions..” Rees goes into fascinating scientific detail, breaking down into laymen’s terms the state of the industry of astrophysics. Here are a few key takeaways:


  • Those in the industry are now able to trace the history of our universe, on an atomic level, to just one nanosecond after the Big Bang.

  • It is suspected that what we know of the universe extends thousands of times further than we can observe. If it extends as far as is thought, “somewhere, there are assemblages of atoms in all possible configurations and combinations.”

  • If that is true, then “everything, however improbable, would happen.” This would open the case for a seemingly infinite amount of parallel dimensions- universes in which everything that can ever happen is happening.

  • These dimensions could be as close as one millimeter from our very eyes, due to their existing in extra spacial dimensions that we cannot perceive (since we can only perceive three known dimensions): “there may be other three-dimensional universes alongside ours, embedded in a grander four-dimensional space.”

Somewhere very near, there could be another you- one who made a different decision than the one you made last week that you now regret. In one dimension, you are the king of a great nation. In another, you are lying in a ditch. In yet another, you have green toenails, and somewhere, you have been happily married for 87 years.


Given this context, how is it that this one instance of someone, on this one planet among billions, in one of billions of galaxies, in one of billions of universes, is so worried about the fact that two people of the same sex want to get married and raise a family? How small do your worries seem when held up in the context of the totality we live in? If we think about it, I’m sure we could find much more worthy, and much less superfluous things to occupy our minds.


If you find yourself passing judgment- on your neighbors, on a politician, on someone’s mistress, endeavor to add some context to the situation. Like revenge, judgment is a dish best served cold, but judgment cannot exist next to the warmth of empathy, which inevitably arises from the fires of context.