On knowing if a thing is a thing

When conditions are stable it is easier to spot an irregularity. A regular heartbeat suddenly shows an arrhythmia, a heathy person develops the ‘flu, freely flowing traffic backs up into a jam, someone’s hitherto stable behaviour starts to show peaks of seemingly irrational action. 

Is it easy to spot these when you don’t have a baseline from which to make a judgement? I have asked this question of myself many times since 2015. I’ve asked it because of the massive change and personal growth I have lived through individually feel like they have coincided with massive change in the country, in the world. To what extent are these changes massive because they are, well, massive? Or do they appear massive because I am now exposed to them in new ways that make them appear massive to me, because they are particularly new? 

Am I seeing new things because they are new to me, or because they are new to the world? When, in other words, is a thing actually a thing? 

This is like sitting on a train when you’ve just pulled into a station alongside another one. After a period, you slowly start moving… or, is it really you that’s moving, or has the one next to you started to move? For a moment or two it’s not even clear whether you are both moving. Eventually you figure it out once sufficient speed is reached. 

How much evidence do you need to make that call? The example I use in these conversations to illustrate the point is also a psychological mechanism through which our attentional filters screen out unimportant information from the overload of stimuli that reach us through our senses. When you buy a blue car you suddenly start seeing blue cars everywhere. Something that was previously not important is now salient to you. You have in some small way an affinity with them, with your fellow drivers in those cars. Previously you wouldn’t have paid them any attention, but now you do. 

When important things change, then, slowly, and one or two limited variables at a time, you notice. You know now that blue cars are a thing. 

What about when everything is changing? What about if you are also changing? Imagine if your perceptions of colour were slowly evolving and changing because you were undertaking lots of learning and you were growing into someone who increasingly viewed colour as fluid, not as a fixed concept. Now how do you know if a blue car is even a blue car, because the next time you’re driving blue might look greenish? What if the cars themselves are now made with this amazing new paint that subtly shifts shades of colours over time, like a giant robotic chameleon? How do you know if a thing is a thing, then, or if it’s just how things are and should be? 

Since 2015 I have learned an incredible amount, intellectually, emotionally, and in terms of ‘real world’ experience. I’ve engaged with topics that previously I dismissed as though they were all the blue cars on the road while mine was grey; sure, I probably should engage with and understand them, but my cognitive load is limited and my self-preservation prioritises other issues and topics. The political elite, corruption, power and the failings of our bureaucracies; big business, capitalism and exploitation; inequality and the unfairness meted out to poorer and disadvantaged communities; environmental degradation. Racial injustice, perhaps more than any other. Sure, this reads like a list of the core challenges in the world, and it is. 

I’ve dug in to issues before, but I’ve kept contained within my world, my experience, my bandwidth – which was, of course, limited. Since then, everything has changed. And amidst such change, how do you know if a thing is a thing, or if it has always been hiding in plain sight, like the blue cars on the road? 

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