Surface Tension

There’s a superficial level to every discussion.

If you follow this conceptual thread far enough, you’ll find that language itself is just a coded analogy that allows us to approximate meaning to each other, verbally and with written glyphs. But in this case, I’m talking specifically about the caricature-like discourse we often engage in because it’s inconvenient and even potentially weird or rude or awkward to do otherwise.

When we talk about politics, we typically focus on a handful of main topics, and the characteristics—real or imagined—of our candidate, and that candidate’s opposition. A conversation in this space seldom delves into the moral rightness of liberal democratic systems, or the confluence of policies that has led to the current global order, and what alternatives might exist to that order.

We could discuss these things. And maybe we should. The conversation would certainly be more complete, though our surface-level discussions generally lack the resolution necessary to accurately display the more granular issues that inform the superficial ones. But like a pyramid, the lower you go, the more massive, more substantial, the discussion becomes. You begin by talking about tax policy, but before you know it, you’re discussing the social rectitude of agrarianism and the metrics we use to establish rightness within a secular moral landscape.

In short, we sometimes have cartoonishly simplified discussions because we’re ignorant or lazy, but we also have them because a larger discussion would, quite possibly, take up all of our time. We use shortcuts in this space for much the same reason we use language: it allows us to address and assess on a high-level, which allows us to operate and make changes, despite what we lose in translation. The resolution is low, but we don’t need crystal clarity one-hundred percent of the time. Sometimes the gist is all we require to get to where we want to be.

That said, that deeper level, the area beneath the surface, makes up the bulk of the intellectual ocean. There’s a lot going on down there, and though it’s not possible to live there full-time—you have to come up for air, eventually—it’s possible to dive deep, to explore, to be amazed by the variation found in the analogical life fluttering and flittering and lurking in that exotic intellectual space.

What’s more, you can train yourself to dive deeper, and for longer periods of time. This is the knowledge-seeking, philosophizing equivalent of becoming a pearl diver who trains herself to hold her breath for several minutes at a time. She plunges below the surface dozens of times a day to achieve this capability; she works hard to train her body so she can spend an increasing amount of time down there amidst the fish and coral and sea anemones.

It’s hard work, but it’s possible. And all that training, importantly, allows her to come back up to the surface every time; safe and, potentially, bearing treasures from the otherwise inaccessible depths.

I sometimes think of this mental model when I find myself lingering above or below the intellectual surface for too long.

It’s possible to stick with a superficial level of knowledge, of discourse, of intellectual exploration, and to never acknowledge that there’s another layer down there, waiting for you to visit, to spend some time, to look around and see some bizarre and beautiful stuff.

It’s also possible to retreat beneath the waves, seldom coming up for air. You perhaps become a creature of the deep—grow a set of gills—but in the trade-off become less capable of interacting with those up on land.

Maybe you, yourself, become more creatively and intellectually alive as a result of this evolution. But because of your change in habits and lack of interest or skill in translating what you’ve learned, you also become less capable of sharing it. That knowledge, that beauty, ends with you.

Surface tension refers to the tendency of liquid molecules to adhere more strongly to each other than to molecules in the air. So where the water ends and the air begins, that delineating layer of ocean is actually stronger in a way, more difficult to puncture, than the expanses of water below.

This is what allows tiny bugs to skim along the surface of lakes, and what causes dew to bead on leaves on a chilly Spring morning.

A similar effect can be found on the intellectual border between deep exploration from superficial communication. The distance between these two realms is immeasurably small, but there’s a tension there; a molecular surface you have to break through in order to explore on the other side.

The effort required to traverse this line is minuscule, but substantial enough to seem not worth the attempt to many people. There are simply too many forces competing for our time, our attention, our energy. The argument for a periodic submersion into something interesting often pales in comparison to the practical realities of paying the bills and struggling to get enough sleep to survive another day.

But the effort pays off. Particularly if you can become accustomed to the shock and exertion of breaching the surface, upward and downward, and bringing what you learn on each side back to the other.

Use your communication skills to turn your newfound knowledge, your hard-won experiences into essays and poetry and paintings. Use your expanded horizons to increase the range of topics you discuss, and the number of questions you might ask of people who have seen portions of the big picture you haven’t.

It’s easier to skip across the surface of the water than to break through it, but the rewards of seeing both sides, of being a creature of the deep and the sky, are immense and valuable.

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