Nothing, not one thing, hurts us more — or causes us to hurt others more — than our certainties. The stories we tell ourselves about the world and the foregone conclusions with which we cork the fount of possibility are the supreme downfall of our consciousness. They are also the inevitable cost of survival, of navigating a vast and complex reality most of which remains forever beyond our control and comprehension. And yet in our effort to parse the world, we sever ourselves from the full range of its beauty, tensing against the tenderness of life.
How to love the world more by negotiating our hunger for certainty and our gift for story is what George Saunders explores in some lovely passages from A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (public library) — the boundlessly wonderful and layered book in which he reckoned with the key to great storytelling and the way to unbreak our hearts.
In consonance with neurologist Oliver Sacks’s insight into narrative as the pillar of personal identity, Saunders examines the elemental impulse for storytelling as the basic organizing principle by which we govern our lives:
The instant we wake the story begins: “Here I am. In my bed. Hard worker, good dad, decent husband, a guy who always tries his best. Jeez, my back hurts. Probably from the stupid gym.”
And just like that, with our thoughts, the world gets made.
Or, anyway, a world gets made.
This world-making via thinking is natural, sane, Darwinian: we do it to survive. Is there harm in it? Well, yes, because we think in the same way that we hear or see: within a narrow, survival-enhancing range. We don’t see or hear all that might be seen or heard but only that which is helpful for us to see and hear. Our thoughts are similarly restricted and have a similarly narrow purpose: to help the thinker thrive.
All of this limited thinking has an unfortunate by-product: ego. Who is trying to survive? “I” am. The mind takes a vast unitary wholeness (the universe), selects one tiny segment of it (me), and starts narrating from that point of view. Just like that, that entity (George!) becomes real, and he is (surprise, surprise) located at the exact center of the universe, and everything is happening in his movie, so to speak; it is all, somehow, both for and about him. In this way, moral judgment arises: what is good for George is… good. What is bad for him is bad. (The bear is neither good nor bad until, looking hungry, it starts walking toward George.)
So, in every instant, a delusional gulf gets created between things as we think they are and things as they actually are. Off we go, mistaking the world we’ve made with our thoughts for the real world. Evil and dysfunction (or at least obnoxiousness) occur in proportion to how solidly a person believes that his projections are correct and energetically acts upon them.
Over time, our stories harden into certainties that collide with each other every time we engage with another person, who is another story — another embodiment of the unreliable first-person narration known as skaz that permeates classic Russian literature. With an eye to the inescapable fact that “there is no world save the one we make with our minds, and the mind’s predisposition determines the type of world we see,” Saunders contours the commonplace tragicomedy of colliding in the mind-made world of skaz:
I think, therefore I am wrong, after which I speak, and my wrongness falls on someone also thinking wrongly, and then there are two of us thinking wrongly, and, being human, we can’t bear to think without taking action, which, having been taken, makes things worse.
The entire drama of life on earth is: Skaz-Headed Person #1 steps outside, where he encounters Skaz-Headed Person #2. Both, seeing themselves as the center of the universe, thinking highly of themselves, immediately slightly misunderstand everything.
Trying to communicate across this fissure of understanding yields results sometimes comical and sometimes tragic, always affirming that reality is not singular but plural, not a point of view but a plane of possible vantages. With an eye to Chekhov — who was a physician by training and an excellent one, but an even better writer because a diagnosis is a forced conclusion of curiosity but art is the eternal sandbox of doubt — Saunders writes:
In a world full of people who seem to know everything, passionately, based on little (often slanted) information, where certainty is often mistaken for power, what a relief it is to be in the company of someone confident enough to stay unsure (that is, perpetually curious).
After a close reading of Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries,” he reflects:
It’s hard to be alive. The anxiety of living makes us want to judge, be sure, have a stance, definitively decide. Having a fixed, rigid system of belief can be a great relief.
As long as we don’t decide, we allow further information to keep coming in. Reading a story like “Gooseberries” might be seen as a way of practicing this. It reminds us that any question in the form “Is X right or wrong?” could benefit from another round of clarifying questions. Question: “Is X good or bad?” Story: “For whom? On what day, under what conditions? Might there be some unintended consequences associated with X? Some good hidden in the bad that is X? Some bad hidden in the good that is X? Tell me more.”
This openness to more — to truth beyond story, to beauty beyond certainty — is precisely what teaches us how to love the world more. With a deep bow to Chekhov as the master of this existential art, Saunders writes:
This feeling of fondness for the world takes the form, in his stories, of a constant state of reexamination. (“Am I sure? Is it really so? Is my preexisting opinion causing me to omit anything?”) He has a gift for reconsideration. Reconsideration is hard; it takes courage. We have to deny ourselves the comfort of always being the same person, one who arrived at an answer some time ago and has never had any reason to doubt it. In other words, we have to stay open (easy to say, in that confident, New Age way, but so hard to actually do, in the face of actual, grinding, terrifying life). As we watch Chekhov continually, ritually doubt all conclusions, we’re comforted. It’s all right to reconsider. It’s noble — holy, even. It can be done. We can do it. We know this because of the example he leaves in his stories, which are, we might say, splendid, brief reconsideration machines.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain remains one of my all-time favorite books. Complement these fragments from it with Virginia Woolf on finding beauty in the uncertainty of time, space, and being and Kurt Vonnegut on uncertainty as the crucible of creativity, then revisit some thoughts on figuring forward in an uncertain world.