Before John Cage wrote 4’33” or established himself as a leading avant-garde composer, he visited Harvard’s anechoic chamber, a room designed to absorb all sound waves. Afterward, he said:
Going into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, I expected to hear no sound at all, because it was a room made as silent as possible. But in that room I heard two sounds. And I was so surprised that I went to the engineer in charge … and said, There’s something wrong, there’re two sounds in that room, and he said describe them, and I did, one was high and one was low, and he said, the high one was my nervous system … and the low one was my blood circulating. So I realized that … I was making music unintentionally continuously.
Cage could not experience silence because he was not silent. Our bodies add their own noise to whatever we hear, a necessary byproduct of our ability to hear, but one that also distorts that ability.
I try to understand things. People, ideas, life. I enjoy listening and learning and knowing, and especially knowing about people. A liberal arts education is all about being a student of the world, right? I want to get a clear, unbiased handle on how life works. But Cage couldn’t experience total silence, and I can’t experience total understanding.
When I try to empathize with the truck driver telling me his life story; when I try to grasp an explanation of meditation and the three planes of existence, I bring my own baggage. My backstory leaks out and splashes onto the trucker’s high school tales; my faith filters talk of ether and balance and files information according to approval and believability.
I want to understand objectively, but there’s too much of me that refuses to disappear and make room for the foreign. Subjectivity is as unavoidable as the whine of a nervous system or the roar of circulating blood.
I keep a line from Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front on my computer’s desktop. It reads, “every day do something that won’t compute.”
The poem explains that idea further:
“As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.”
Berry’s call for unpredictability, if followed, keeps us from getting stuck. My personal logic gives me a framework—a way of understanding that makes sense, based on my experiences and beliefs. But it is a mold, and it shapes reality and leaves telltale signs of its influence.
I can stare at a mountain for days, peering from one vantage point and using the best glasses and binoculars available. But no matter how clear my vision, I only see the mountain from my perspective. I see only one face, and I see that face from only one angle.
I can learn more about the mountain if I get up and walk around it and hike to the summit. Sure, I might take some dead ends and leave more tracks than necessary, but I’ll also find views that I can’t get elsewhere. Those views might not be as clean or crisp as the ones I get with high-powered binoculars, but their variety gives me a more complete picture. It’s the same principle as triangulation, where three perspectives—even three cloudy perspectives—can pinpoint a location far better than a single clear view.
Instead of trying to objectively understand how my driver meditates (tapping into the energy stored at the base of his spine), maybe I should do something radical for me and just do meditation. It would still be a subjective experience—I “make music unintentionally continuously”—but it would add new information that I can’t get from my default approach of detached analysis.
I don’t mean to dismiss distant observation. Binoculars are still important. It’s the variety and unpredictability that counts; the trying new ideas that helps us work around our noisy nervous system.
If we really want to understand about people and things and life, we need illogical variety. Climb a tree and get an arial view of a familiar place. Shoot a gun, even—no, especially—if they terrify you. Smoke something. Read the Book of Mormon; waste an afternoon watching clouds. Argue for the opposite side; try to appreciate 4’33” and abstract art. Do something that takes you out of your normality, something that challenges and therefore exposes your biases and interpretive lenses. If we really want to get closer to understanding, every day, do something that won’t compute.
NPR called Josh “a modern-day Jack Kerouac” after he wrote about his 7,000-mile, no-money hitchhiking journey through the United States. Since hitchhiking, he’s found homes in the Pacific Northwest, the Episcopal Church, and the post calvin. He builds websites as the director of Branded Look LLC. Josh’s writing has appeared in places such as The Emerson Review, Front Porch Review, and Perspectives.