Something about a trip to the water helps remind you of how life is always just a little better when things are not perfectly balanced. To a student of physics this may come as something of a shock, when realized at first. After all some of the greatest beauty in the truth revealed through that way of knowing relies on a fundamental assumption of balance. Consider Newton’s famous Third Law (sometimes inaccurately quoted as to “every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) which, simply stated is “If Object A applies a force on Object B then B applies a force on A equal in size but opposite in direction.” Push and there’s a push-back…sort of. Other things too: charge; find a positive and expect a corresponding negative. Even at the more fundamental level; find a particle, then look for a corresponding “antiparticle.” Find a “property” say something called, for example, “up,” and therefore expect it to be matched with a corresponding “down.” Chances are you’ll find it. If not then you expect that maybe something is wrong.
But not always. It depends on how you look at it.
When you think about it much of what happens in the physical world is all about asymmetry. Heat energy flows to where the temperature is lower. Thus, hot things cool off; maybe get cold. An unbalanced force acts on a rock and thrusts it upwards, seemingly defying that most asymmetric of forces: gravity itself.
But not for long. All things do act as if to seek a lower energy state. Drop by drop the rain and the melting snow will follow gravity’s path to the ocean and thus grain by grain the hill will slowly be reduced; nature’s own regression to the mean as it were.
Bit by bit the Canada I love is tending toward a “lower state” too. Just last week it was finally shown for sure that my country’s spy agencies have decided to turn their sights on those of us they are supposed to serve. They say it’s to protect our safety. Safety above all! The price will be some loss of freedom. They go on to insist that they were not really snooping on us at all, merely looking at the metadata; the data-about-data (phone numbers, IP addresses, owners’ identities, persons contacted, locations, times) as if that’s not much. Did you look at the list in parentheses? The Cold War era CIA, Stasi and KGB could not do as well on “combatants” could they? Potential threats to safety–is that what we are all to be considered…at least in theory?
Sometimes the greatest beauty is to be found when we drop symmetry altogether and just let things interact. Land and sea. What is it about the contrast that draws us to it?
Perhaps there, at the interface between wet and dry, high and low, that we realize the best of what we have to offer is not to be found in straightforward, internally consistent models, based as they are on ideals, assumptions and constraints that, taken together result in something of only limited predictive value. Introduce just one unknown, one element of chaos to the model and what becomes of its usefulness?
And besides, who wants a nice, neat trouble-free world? The sight of the birds, making a winter’s life there in the semi-frozen estuary, more or less oblivious to the pretty, well-kept human homes behind them reminds me of a bit I heard in a talk by the great Buddhist Master Thích Nhất Hạnh when he spoke of the traditional ideal of what many refer to as “heaven.” In short, he simply cannot imagine as worthwhile a place and time where people have nothing better to do than just play it safe and take it easy all of the time. To him the whole value in life comes from the endless struggle faced as we seek improvement in not just our own lives but, more importantly, those of others.
Is that what we are expected to do–just give up and welcome in the police/surveillance state blindly accepting that it will keep us safe? Safe for what? To unquestioningly go about our business day after day, focused only on the work needed to make the money for the monthly payments on the over-built house we do not need or the toys that sit most of the time in our driveway? And what do we do when CSIS decides that the metadata is not enough? In the interest of safety it now needs to be able to access the content we are viewing, hear the calls we are making, read our mail and messages. Trust us–we’re the government, after all.
An opening, perhaps? A place in which that fundamental imbalance is expected; a welcome sight to some, unwelcome to others. It depends on what you want. Looking to see if we can find a positive change or intent on keeping things as they are, lest they worsen.
But perhaps also a call for humility and for patience. That which seems immobile will, with time become smoother, smaller, perhaps even disappear. All it takes is the ability to sustain that unbalanced force.
It’s cliché. The innocent protagonist is on the run from a much more powerful adversary; one with eyes and operatives everywhere. They just need to get to the one entity they can trust. Then along it comes, the big black SUV. A door opens and one of the several agents inside says, “Get in now!.” “Why?” asks the protagonist. The reply, always, “It’s for your safety! But get in now before it’s too late!”
And, sitting there, the audience, every single onlooker who can see what’s going on, screams inwardly, “Don’t get in the car! Do not, under any circumstance give up your freedom!”
“It’s for your safety,” that oft-used but wickedly effective line. If there something that you know that nobody will do either acting on instinct or after thinking it through, this is one of the really effective ways you have of getting the outcome you want. When told their safety is at risk people will do things they should not and will give up things they know they should not.
And what of the future. Those who never take the time to look beneath the surface, to “unpack it all” as the phrase often goes in academic circles, still labour under the assumption that we seek is fundamental truth. Where did it actually begin? What’s it really like at the most basic level? Maybe what we are really wondering is, “How did it get to be like this?”
What, in the end, do these spy agencies really want from us? Perhaps it’s best to imagine just who ends up working in that field. People with an inherent grasp of the flawed but essential goodness of most of humanity or people who believe that at the core of each and every human being lurks a potential villain, ready to unleash evil if the perfect storm of factors gets its way. The preferred resting state in their view, for all of us is, what? …a society where we only do what’s sanctioned and only free to do what’s expressly laid out but always under the vigilant watch of those who know that at all of our cores (except theirs) lurks a potential traitor?
Isn’t it better to acknowledge that final truth will likely ever remain elusive? What is knowable, though, will change. Our eyes can only see what the light permits. Likewise the brain only interprets that which is knowable under its current state. That can change. Each new bit of knowledge brings, with it, the possibility of a re-scaffolding of our fundamental understanding whether it be the bit-by-bit construction that occurs daily or the “throw down that whole part; we have a better design here” type than happens every now and then.
But as for an end-game and a final great singularity of understanding, who cares? The journey is always worth it and, every so often we are afforded a grand view. Perhaps that’s enough.
Safety net or not with each step we take lies the possibility of danger. That’s a given. Do I have something to hide? No, that’s not the point; the real concern here is a lack of limits, rules and policies for the self-appointed watchers. Learning to recognize threat in its many forms and, then, learning wise and effective responses is a part of life’s journey. In the end we must all share in the responsibility for, not only our own safety but also, the safety of those with whom we share our lives. Knowing real from imagined danger is part of it all. That’s why we have two thinking systems. One that evokes the flight-or fight response in milliseconds when sensory input alerts us to imminent danger and one that encourages us to weigh the risks and benefits for those risks that transcend the here-and-now. Maybe we can decide that the risks posed by an omnipresent, unregulated surveillance system outweigh those from phantoms under the bed. At least we can decide together and not have the choices made for us, sight unseen, by those who, above all, fear and mistrust us.
Best of all, when we turn around from that grand view the memory remains. That which we say cannot be unseen.
New light and new understanding reveals new details and, with them, come new questions. The cycle continues.