Facing disturbing reality has never been nearly as pleasant as wallowing in oblivion, but, in an era in which partisan and magical thinking appears to have gathered hurricane force, and, as I am far enough down the broad highway of life to take responsibility for my part in allowing nonsense to take the place of reason, the time to face reality’s cold glare has apparently arrived. Truth planted both proverbial feet in my midsection yesterday, in what was a safe visit to the doctor’s office. I had barely scanned the latest edition of Communicative Disease Quarterly in the waiting room when a person attached to the office called me to account.
“Let’s get you weighed and measured,” she suggested, an invitation I am seem powerless to resist. Ordinarily, no problem. I have a set of scales at home and have a reasonably well informed estimation of my weight. No surprise there. I do not measure my height, however, haven’t had any occasion to, haven’t had any interest in my stature.
I’ve been five feet and eight-and-a-half inches since my last years in school. A lifetime, as it were. One of the few fixed elements in a universe of constant change. My weight has elevatored up and down. My hair has thinned, gone grey, thinned more resolutely. My feet are flatter and wider. My nose and ears require some barbering.
I’ve made adjustments, accommodations. I’ve faced aging without complaint. Pretty resilient, yes , no?
And then …
“How tall do you think you are?”
Let’s begin by wondering why this question as I am about to stand on the device which answers that question. Am I the control group in this exercise? Does my answer in any way change the recording of whatever appears as the flange is pulled down? Just checking? Checking what? My awareness of the world about me? My veracity? My general state of mental acuity?
No, it’s clear as I call out my answer — five eight — recognizing that gravity has probably had its way with me over the decades, finally willing to let that significant half inch go, but before I’ve even stepped into the frame, this angel of mercy responds, “You think so?”
“You think so?”
That is not a question; this is taunting. “What a sap! Living in a world of make believe. How sad, really. How pathetic. ‘Five eight’? It is to laugh. Why do they persist in such painfully obvious attempts at deception? Who’s being fooled? Certainly not I, the health professional. Not I, the mistress of the actual, I, handmaiden to science. No,once again, I do the job that only I can do. For only I can instruct this grotesquely self-delusive sod before he attempts to mislead another person of worth in his meaningless round of pointless errands at the tail end of his pointless life.”
Or something along those lines.
It turns out that I am now five foot six inches tall, if tall is a term that can be applied to five feet and six inches of male human in the 21st Century. It was Robert Burns who in his “To A Louse” put the issue of self awareness before us in words that ring through the ages, at least to those who like a nice Scottish rhapsody.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An foolish notion;
Wat airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An ev’n devotion.
The crux of the address (to a louse, I’m just saying) is that it might be devastating to see ourselves as others see us. Probably. We are mysteries to ourselves, so what else have we really got to do but wonder about the billions of individual life stories playing out in heads other than ours. Not to get all Matrix, but since we can’t actually know the essence of what is outside of ourselves (wax is wax, Descartes argued, until it is touched by flame — a not-very-helpful analog to the figure/ground, observer/event paradox), so what the heck? Let’s keep as far as possible from a probably mistaken view of ourselves.
That digression aside, this moment of clarity reduces itself (as it were) to one final truth.
I can’t remember if those actual words are spoken by the central character in the 1957 film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, a somewhat hokey Sci Fi thriller written by Richard Matheson, a pretty fair twister of tales and a regular contributor to The Twilight Zone. He’s the author of “Nightmare at 20,000 feet”, generally considered one of the top five episodes and plenty creepy. The basic plot of The Incredible Shrinking Man is that there’s this man, see, and he shrinks, an inch a week, which causes all sorts of problems. I was too young to understand the terrible burden intense shrinking would bring to a marriage; let’s just say that the central character’s wife does not handle his predicament very well. She finally moves out, although by this time her hubby has become so small that they could cohabitate without much scuffling for space. There are all sorts of thrilling challenges in the Stuart Little, man vs. cat mode, but the lines that pack some punch come at the end of the film.
Don’t mistake me. This is a hokey movie without much in the way of true terror until …
There are really only two ways this film could have ended; either the effects of the mysterious shrinking cloud wear off or are reversed, or the guy shrinks until …
Yeah, and that was the part that drove me batty. The actor prattles on about the comfort he finds in being reduced to subatomic oneness with the universe, but I was in no way comforted by his acceptance of his fate.
“I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close — the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet — like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”
The answer to the riddle of the infinite. I was eleven years old. I had no place to put the riddle of the infinite, and from that point onwards, childhood ended, intimations of mortality overwhelmed me, and every day became existential boot camp.
All of which is to say, physicians beware! You can weigh me, take my blood pressure, staple the little gizmo to my finger, but this shrinking man is hanging on to his sixty six inches with every fiber of his shrinking being.