Making Sense of the Senseless

Wednesday May 20, 2020

I remember as a child, the lavatory in my grandparents’ house was outside. Not quite outside; there was another door before you reached the open air, but beyond the scullery – outside the house proper. I didn’t like to use it, but sometimes I had to. It had a high seat which I needed a stool to reach and then a pull chain with an overhead cistern that made a terrifying noise and flushed with the whirlpool power of Corryvrecken.

Sitting there – sometimes for ages – I would look at the lino on the floor and find faces in the random splodges; dark grey on light grey, with dashes of navy and occasional dots of darkest Carmine. There was a poodle, and an Eighteenth-Century lady with a high powdered wig. There was an old man brandishing a stick and a pig with a wiggly tail. Finding these familiar objects in the chaos of the floor covering gave me comfort in that cold isolation.

Many of us do this. In fact, it’s so common it has a name, pareidolia.

I think it can be taken further than this, however. We humans seek pattern in everything. If there is a pattern, then we can create a structure. If there is structure, we can predict what might happen and begin to find some rules. If we have rules, then we have the illusion of control.

Since our earliest times, humankind has sought these patterns and rules. We created gods out of the natural world and made sacrifices; praying for a good harvest or rain, or healing, or good fortune. We still have the country sayings: a heavy crop of holly berries means it will be a hard winter; rain on St Swithin’s day means another 40 days of inclement weather; things always come in threes.

Last year there was an excellent crop of holly berries, but we had a mild winter; 15th July 2019 was sunny, but rain set in before the end of the week; yesterday I spilled my coffee only twice.

If you have watched the film Forrest Gump, you will have noticed that his content in life comes from a simple acceptance of how things are. He does not judge his conditions or try to make sense of them: he just accepts things the way they are.

It is the job of medical statisticians to make sense of this virus named Covid 19. The high-level mathematics involved is beyond the comprehension of most of us and changes every day with improved and increased data. We ordinary people cannot predict or make sense of it.

I am not saying that we should shrug our shoulders and accept everything fatalistically – because I think we should certainly exercise our power wherever and whenever we can. But there are things in the world which are random or beyond our understanding, and we must accept this. Doing anything else is a recipe for madness.

Sometimes we must let be what will be.

A Moodscope member.

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