Select Page

Aware of Where We Are

Aware of Where We Are

by William H. Benson

August 1, 2013

     In May 1986 at Harvard’s graduation, an interviewer asked twenty-three graduates a simple question: “Why is it warm in the summer and cold in the winter?” Nearly all the graduates answered that during the summer the Earth is nearer the sun, and they were wrong. Only two knew the correct answer. Because the Earth tilts, the sun is more directly overhead in the summer than in the winter.

     Farmers know that, as does anyone who works outside. They watch the sun. A week ago a writer in the New York Times named John Edward Huth wrote that even “a Neolithic farmer could . . . explain that the sun was low in the winter and high in the summer.” Huth makes the point that when we divide knowledge into minute slices and pieces, we miss seeing the “larger conceptual framework.” Without that context, “we surrender meaning to guardians of knowledge, and it loses its personal value.”

     To observe a phenomenon and arrive at a conclusion is a valid skill, not needing a teacher. Which direction is the wind blowing, and which direction is north, or south, or east, or west? Where is the sun in the sky? Where is the moon? What is its shape? What are the ocean’s waves doing? Where is the tide? Some are unaware of their surroundings; others pick up those clues without effort.

     In Australia’s Outback lives a tribe called the Guugu Yimithirr. These aborigines are unusual because they speak a language that is geographic oriented, that relies on cardinal directions. Because they maintain a keen sense of where true north is, they describe items by directions. “Look out for that big ant just north of your foot,” they might say, and “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” If blindfolded and spun around twenty times in a darkened room, they will still point to north.

     To be aware of the physical is one thing, but a separate universe is human emotion. People feel emotions as well as think thoughts, often simultaneously. We walk on planet Earth and stare up at a star-littered sky, at a sun, and a moon, but we also feel things inside. We feel the pain when we lose our job, our home. We feel joy at a wedding, a win at a ball game. We feel relieved when we missed a disaster, an accident. We feel envious of others success, of their skills.

     Great writers, especially the superb novelists, include the range of emotions in their prose. Plot may be a story’s skeleton, but the emotions are its skin and features and the force that keeps people reading late into the night. Readers feel what the characters feel: shame, ambition, sorrow, and love.

     When conversing with another, some may miss what others are feeling, but others catch the cues, the facial features, the body language, and the voice’s tone. They read others like some read a book.

     Jane Austen’s character, Emma, in her book by the same name, asks Mrs. Weston why their friend Jane Fairfax spends so much time with Mrs. Elton, a silly person. Mrs. Weston says to Emma, “Well, before we condemn what she chooses, we have to consider what she quits.” If Jane stays at home, she has to hang out with her aunt and grandad, which Mrs. Weston believe would not be time well spent.

     An economist would say that Jane’s decision to visit a silly and inane person is an “opportunity cost.” Indeed, an economist named Michael Chwe published a book this year called Jane Austen, Game Theorist, and in it he pointed out how Jane Austen’s characters think and feel. Mrs. Weston is aware of why people choose as they do. She places her thoughts and feelings inside Jane Fairfax’s and considers her alternatives. Mrs. Weston is aware that when one chooses between two bad alternatives, he or she will choose the one least distasteful.

     The movie, Much Ado About Nothing, was released on June 7. Although I have not seen it yet, I read that the director filmed it in just twelve days and followed to the letter Shakespeare’s script of his better comedy. Beatrice and Benedick are young and single. Whenever they meet, they antagonize each other, they kid each other, and they put each other down. Their verbal battles are great sport.

      Then, Benedick’s friends whisper so that he can hear and convince him that Beatrice loves him, and Beatrice’s friends do the same and convince her that Benedick loves her. The two meet on stage, stare at each other, and wonder. Who do we trust? Others’ words, or our own feelings? They try to write and recite love poems, but the repartee was more fun. They examine their feelings, and the realization dawns upon them that, yes, they do love each other, and so they marry.

     Benedick ends the play, “a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Man is a giddy thing and this is my conclusion.” So it is much ado about nothing.


     Why is it hot in the summer? Which direction is north? Why did Mrs. Watson know what Jane Fairfax was thinking? Why did Beatrice and Benedict fall in love once they ceased teasing each other? To know is one thing, but to experience a feeling is another. The gaps in our knowledge and in our awareness of other’s feelings is huge. Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.