Monday, September 19, 2011
The Power of Not Being Correct
This post is going to reveal part of the reason for this blog’s name. It is tied up in something that to me is very cool; that sometimes, being wrong can be more helpful to us than being right. Let us consider drawing a lake shore. At first, I may simply draw an oval-ish shape where I know the lake is. I go back later, and add some bulges and some notches, showing some inlets or arms of note. Later, I wonder exactly where a dock is, and so I go back and try to redraw the shore to follow the far less regular shape it actually follows. If, for some reason, I really wanted to know where a specific rock was, I would likely go back and redraw the shore there adding an even greater depth of detail. But if I were to insist upon drawing the entire lake shore perfect and exact in every way, it would not benefit me, for I would spend so long in the effort that I would never be able to make use of my map. Some of you may be recognizing where this is going… I am describing a rough analogy of the evolution of a fractal pattern in mathematics, a shape of bounded area, but limitless perimeter. If I have a fractal contained within a circle two feet across, I could take a paint roller a foot wide and paint the whole object in two strokes. But if I took a hypothetically perfect brush and tried to paint a line around the edge, I would never finish.
What is all this rubbish about fractals and lakes, and how does any of this relate to my blog? I’ve just been speaking in analogy, and this is where it gets awesome; what it means is now beyond my ability to tell you. This post, by nature of the symbolic explanation, is now a fractal of itself, an idea whose edges cannot be measured despite my best efforts to do so. Now, let us return to one of my favorite points to illuminate with my candle; Parables. Christ taught us the majority of his lessons in the form of analogy and metaphor, elaborate allegories which impart clever lessons for us to unravel. But by making these lessons parables, he also made them boundless. We can never explore perfectly the bounds of a parable; there is always more depth, more of the border for us to pick out. Sure, we know that they fit into a particular basket, we know what the area that they fit within is, but we don’t know their full richness.
Here is where the connection to my blog lies, for I think that the fundamental relationship between parables and koans is stronger and richer than is generally acknowledged. Both are ways of asking the student to educate themselves. Both are a symbolic expression, often rendered nonsense or at least somewhat foolish if taken literally. Both invite the student to look within, and to think deeper on that which they think they know. Both are exercises in which answering incorrectly is met with patience and encouragement, and indeed, where an incorrect answer can still educate and enlighten. Ultimately, and most importantly, both exist in a state where there is not a correct answer; only an answer which can satisfy the present needs of the student for enlightenment.
I feel that a good Christian could benefit from approaching the Parables of Christ more like the Koans of Zen. Take them and meditate upon them, feel out your understanding and how they fit into your life. Test your understanding in conversations with other seekers for truth, students and masters, and when you have a moment of true insight hours, days, or years later, receive the wisdom with joyful heart. Then, perhaps years later perhaps the next week, when you encounter the parable again, repeat the process from your new place in your life, your self-understanding, and your relationship to Christ, and don’t be surprised or worried when the answer you reach is new or distinct from the one you reached before. The general lesson and big picture may be clear, but the edges are always ready to reveal another layer of meaning, another iota of complexity to the fabric of our understanding.
One of the great gifts of the parables is that we can be wrong about what they mean in limitless ways which help to refine us and our understanding, we can gain partial understanding and enough of the truth to fill us with a sense of well being and understanding, but we can never be right about their full scope. A lesson in which there is no right answer, but being wrong does not make you a bad student. Only refusing to try can do that, the border of your own fractal of learning is defined only by the effort you are willing to give. How cool is that?