A few weeks ago I was chatting with another writer on Twitter; it was one of those fairly inconsequential, “let’s one-up each other with wisecracks” exchanges until something relatively innocuous happened that has stuck with me since. He mentioned his dog, and I countered with a response that assumed the canine in question was a he, only to find it was in fact a she. And I wondered why my brain had made that automatic leap. Surely I was aware that dogs are manufactured in both male and female varieties, so why did I default to the presumption that this particular dog was a boy? It reminded me, not in a good way, of the old riddle that starts with a father and son being involved in a car crash. The father is killed instantly and the boy is critically injured. He’s taken to the hospital where the doctor on call looks at him and remarks, “I can’t operate on him – he’s my son” and you are supposed to be left scratching your head at the impossibility of the situation – that is, if you’re living in 1952. In 2013 you know right away that the doctor is the boy’s mother, or that the boy is the child of a same-sex couple. So, while I wasn’t going to wrack myself with guilt about misjudging the gender of somebody’s dog, it did leave me with larger questions to ponder about how we perceive the world, and the assumptions we use to make the world make sense, if only for a moment.
Human beings have an aversion to ambiguity. You see this often in the movies we flock to – stories that resolve their plots in a neat and tidy manner with a clear delineation of the good guys and the bad guys. Nuance here is not a virtue. Whereas the artier films, while revered by critics and intellectuals, leave larger audiences cold and dissatisfied, to the point of wanting their money back, as if for the investment of that piece of their lives, they feel entitled to a satisfying conclusion. Ambiguity in these cases is the front door to the house absently left wide open after you’ve left for the day, an insect bite when you don’t have any lotion to put on it and you’re miles from the pharmacy, the missing puzzle piece you swear was in the box when you opened it. We have an innate need, as Amanda Palmer reminds us, to connect the dots, and when we can’t, it bothers us. So we provide our own answers, even if they are wildly incorrect. At least they are answers, the blanks filled in to a satisfactory point for the time being. Sometimes, those answers prove more creative than the truth, and it’s possible that the aversion to ambiguity is in fact one of the greatest wellsprings to storytelling. A mystery demands examination and explanation. Life is like a series of questions on an exam that you must complete regardless of whether or not you’ve studied. Show your work for full credit.
Despite the willingness of a great majority of us to believe without question in supernatural beings directing both our collective and individual fates, that too is an example of needing an explanation for life’s mysteries, without, ironically, taking things on faith. Yet even an atheist must, at times, marvel at the sense of imagination revealed in some of these extrapolations, like the richness of the mythology of ancient Greece spinning essentially from an attempt to figure out what lightning was and why it had a tendency to appear along with thunder. If the Greeks had been okay with lightning just being there and had never bothered to question it, would we have had Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite and the great legends that gave us the Iliad, the Odyssey and so on? Would said pantheon had arisen had they been able to look up lightning on Wikipedia (or the ancient Athenian stone tablet version of same) and seen that it was “a massive electrostatic discharge between electrically charged regions within clouds, or between a cloud and the Earth’s surface”? Not sure about you, but Percy Jackson and the Electrostatic Discharge Thief isn’t quite as compelling a title. There is magic lying hidden in the unknown, the unscientific, the story.
Assumptions in ambiguous situations can of course be wrong, and terribly so. When we leap to conclusions about a group based on the traits of a few, we’re falling into the trap of the closed-minded, the ostrich with its head buried in the sand. (Enough bloody human history has been written because of this tendency.) The ideal approach to any unknown is to enter without preconceptions or expectations and let the details fill themselves in on their own. But the instinct to grasp at conclusion, while occasionally troublesome, is part of what drives our curiosity about the world, our desperate need to understand why things are a certain way and not another way. It is what makes us turn pages faster or even peek at the end to find out whether or not the butler did it. And if the last page has been torn out, we’ll invent our own ending where it was the beautiful scheming mistress of the victim’s cousin’s former roommate. As long as the mystery remains unresolved, someone will want to posit a solution. And when the truth is unsatisfying, alternate interpretations will be suggested. For nature abhors a vacuum.
So, back to the original premise: why did I assume that the dog was male? Because it fit the joke I was making, the story I was trying to tell in that place at that time. It was my interpretation, my truth, in the moment, for the moment. I recognize, in a most deliciously contradictory manner, that in examining the human relationship with ambiguity, I haven’t fully answered the question. Instead, to paraphrase a line in The American President, I’ve kinda just left this thing hanging out there, for you to draw your own conclusions. A propos, however; given the subject matter, it couldn’t really end any other way. So, your turn. Fill in the blank: _______________________