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by Jan Sand
2007-02-07 08:36:29
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There are some statements that shoot themselves in the foot, such as: “This sentence is a lie.” If it is, it isn’t and if it isn’t, it is. Another is: “All generalities are false including this one.” However, a generality is an essential step in grasping the very elusive nature of reality. Thinking in generalities is what we all do all the time.

Take the color red (or any other color for that matter). The electromagnetic spectrum runs from very low frequencies, such as the 50 or 60 cycles per minute, in the alternating current used in wired power up into the frequencies used for radio broadcasting and then up into frequencies used in microwave ovens and radar. Above that are infrared radiation perceived as heat and the very slim portion of the spectrum we use to see with. This merges upwards into ultra violet radiation that some insects can see and then upwards into soft and hard x-rays. Above that are atomic gamma rays and finally cosmic radiation from the universe.

But nowhere in the spectrum do we see little fences portioning out where one part ends and another part begins. This color red, which is an exceedingly thin part of a huge spectrum has, within itself, a wide range of frequencies which tapers off at one end into orange and at the other end into yellow. And red itself, to be precise, does not exist at all in the electromagnetic spectrum. It exists in the perceptive interpretation of the human nervous system devoted to sight.

Nevertheless, when we communicate with each other in our daily lives, it is extremely useful to merely indicate that something is red and there is not much confusion in the matter. But an astronomer dealing with the elemental makeup of a distant star must examine the spectral range of the light received very carefully for determining not only its chemical constituents but also its velocity in respect to Earth and its distance. Just plain red is totally inadequate.

To an immense extent, human beings deal with each other in very broad generalities. This is very evident in politics and unconsidered social relationships where generality seems to be the preferred mode. People of various colors have, through the capability of their skins to reflect white light, been accredited with all sorts of negative and positive mental and physiological capabilities. Since the assessment of actual ability in any individual is a difficult thing to do accurately the skin color thing is an easy generality that permits quick and most usually totally inaccurate perceptions.

If this were a mere matter of peripheral judgments with no contingent action it would be unfortunate but of little consequence. But history has indicated immense misery and horrifying misuse of valuable and talented populations as a consequence of this facile and unconsidered way of looking at the world.

And if it were just the matter of skin color, things would be bad enough. But all differences between unfamiliar peoples are commonly reduced to generalities with equally dire consequences. Nationalities, languages, religions, mode of dress, occupations, ancestry, political affiliations and many other oversimplifications are daily used to firmly classify an individual negatively or positively with very frequent awful results.

Very young children do not know enough of the world to box encounters into generalities. Every event in each day shines in its own light. Every human, dog, cat, bird, flower, every minute, every sunrise and sunset is a unique event to be examined carefully, to be milked for its splendor, for its joy, for its threat. Each day, for a child is an adventure, is like a month for an adult who has learned mostly to not to see, to enjoy, to savor for its individuality and preciousness.

If we could learn to be young again the world would suddenly be overflowing with riches, with wonderful delights to be merely alive and aware and receptive.

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