Paths and Perception

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

We will always meet and never meet again. Our corridors lead us forever apart.

Ursula K. LeGuin – Paradise Lost, The Found and the Lost

This poem from the novella Paradise Lost by Ursula K. LeGuin made me think about how our environment influences how we think and communicate. It is the story of woman who is born and grows up on a generation space ship traveling to a far away planet and the poem is written by this young woman about one of her friends who once was close, but has drifted off.

Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

What especially fascinates me is “Our corridors lead us forever apart.” It felt so strange to read this. We, who have grown up and live on a planet, with open spaces and ways that crisscross the world wouldn’t phrase it like that. We would probably say something like “our paths lead us forever apart“, which makes sense if you have the concept of path. The first definition of path in the Free Dictionary is “a road or way, esp a narrow trodden track“, the second is “a surfaced walk, as through a garden“. Even if you were born in a large city and have never seen a path as I automatically visualize it – a small worn out track through a wood – you would still know the concept from tiny alleys or the ways through a park. The concept is deeply ingrained in all of us as we have seen and walked paths all our life.

But is a path is a concept that you would understand intuitively if you were born on a space ship that consists of spaces connected by corridors? Probably not. Probably the ingrained concept of a way that leads you to or from someone would be a corridor as LeGuin writes in the poem. And this is not only true for a path and it isn’t only true for fictional people living in a fictional spaceship. This is true for everything and all of us.

What we perceive and how we perceive things is strongly shaped by our past and current environment. If you grew up in a city you have probably learned how to navigate streets, when you can safely jaywalk, and how to ignore people around you in the subway. These are the skills you need to “survive” in this environment. What you haven’t learned is to track – or even see – wild animals on the savanna. I learned this first hand during a trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, where I completely failed to see a Lion pub sitting right next to the car until it was pointed out to me. Your experience is a completely different one to someone who has grown up on the savanna and whose life literally depends on her skills to recognize a Lion in the underbrush.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Now, if we consider that each of us has a vastly different perception of the world, isn’t it understandable that we often don’t understand each other? I believe if we manage to keep this in mind and more often try to see also the other side of an argument then all of us will get along much better. And this is something we will definitely need if we want to tackle the challenges that are ahead of us on this tiny blue dot in the middle of emptiness.