Questions of scale in social life are a bit like questions of physics. For example, it’s virtually impossible as a layperson to make detailed sense of either quantum mechanics or of general relativity. It’s doubly impossible to try to hold some understanding of both in your head at once.
So it is with the social life around you and your place in it.
I once got a Ph.D. and taught at universities and wanted to be a professor. At other times I’ve thought about going into politics. Both of these things are difficult for me to imagine right now, when my world is as big as one small residence somewhere in a small place named Provo. Universities? What are those? Incomprehensible.
Then you read something like Politico or The Hill and the scope and scale of the things that they talk about, in social terms, is incommensurate with the reality of individual life in the suburbs. It seems impossible that the two worlds can both exist, or that you can be related, in the logico-mathematical sense, to both of them. The “equations” are simply not forthcoming.
And then you read something like last month’s BuzzFeed piece on the string of deaths in the U.K. that may be attributable to Russia and Putin.
It’s like the difference between an electron and a volcano on the one hand, and between a volcano and a supercluster on the other hand.
I mean… what?
How can “human beings” and “human relationships” at each of these scales—random single dad trying to edge around bankruptcy and loneliness in the suburbs, public life as professor or politician, and international billionaire assassinated in the middle of a plot of intrigue beyond the wildest dreams of either Hollywood or most banks—possibly be the same quantities?
To use one of “those phrases,” well—the mind boggles. You draw a blank. You develop vertigo trying to understand it all.
I think this is one of the reasons why some people, even very smart people, fail to succeed or to “live up to their potential.” Because their imaginations (like mine) cannot hold at the same time both an image of a “self” (body, individual identity, set of preferences and sensations in the here and now) and a “social world” (seven billion people, governments, virtually infinite human productivity, the Internet, etc.) at the same time.
It just isn’t possible for me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t possible for many others. It leaves my head swimming. You can’t achieve what you can’t visualize, and you can’t visualize on playground territory that you can’t even conceive of.
I know there are people that can imagine things like “I can build a business empire and earn billions” or “I can run for president,” but to me these things are meaningless. Business empire? National government? Billions?
What do these things even mean?
A single big-box retail store is almost more that I can conceive of at once.
My brain is good at other things, but I go entirely blank when I try to imagine “life” beyond house, car, and what I plan to do in my yard tomorrow. It’s all quite simply too big.