Context

Context influences a person’s experience. A sudden sharp pain in one’s finger makes sense in the context of carelessly slicing a tomato. The same sharp pain would be confusing if experienced while reclining on a sofa, watching television. Seeing a familiar face in a familiar place—a coworker on the job, for example—conforms to my expectations, but seeing that same person’s image, identified as a serial rapist, would confuse me. Thinking about this, I wonder…is it the context that shapes our experience or is it the expectations we hold for experiences in that context? Perhaps it’s both. Expectations and context go hand in hand. Modify context and the experience changes; modify expectations and the experience changes. No, the more I think about it, context more than expectations drives experience. Expectations play a crucial role, but experiences can take place in the absence of expectations about them. Experiences cannot take place, though, in the absence of context.

Not that it matters in the context of this discussion with myself, but I just looked up the definition of context. Third in list of meanings was one with which I was not familiar:

Mycology. the fleshy fibrous body of the pileus in mushrooms.

I love being surprised in innocuous ways. But not in the sense of the third definition of innocuous:

not interesting, stimulating, or significant; pallid; insipid

Context matters. Even in language. Especially in language. Context helps us understand the world around us. Perhaps I should rephrase that: Context is the world around us; understanding it helps us understand our experiences.

I could spend hours (and have done so) wandering aimlessly through the dictionary. Online dictionaries, which tend to be in database form instead of endless alphabetical lists, are easy to use, but massive twenty volume hardback sets that require dedicated pieces of furniture to accommodate their weight and bulk please me even more. The second edition, published in 1989, contained almost 22,000 pages in those twenty volumes. I could be entertained for years, just reading through the entries. But perhaps I’ll wait for the third edition, which was begun in 2000 and is said to be half complete. Perhaps I’ll buy a set as a birthday present to myself on my eighty-third birthday.

Before reaching this paragraph in this post, I allowed myself to scramble down the rabbit hole of definitions. One word that struck me with interest is “indefatigable,” meaning: incapable of being tired out; not yielding to fatigue; untiring. Oddly enough, there is no  definition online of defatigable, but there is a listing, but no definition, for infatigable. Somewhere in our language’s storied past we seem to have chosen to keep or to create words that felt more comfortable on our tongue, paying little regard to logic regarding their roots. I should have studied linguistics, English linguistics. I could have become an expert on aspects of the English language. I could have been a contender! I could have been somebody! Instead, I have no expertise.

Yesterday, we attended the Hot Springs AKC Kennel Club dog show. Just because it was being held, admission was free, and…dogs. So we went. And I watched closely as judges examined the ways dogs carried themselves, presented certain aspects of their pedigree, and handled themselves in crowds. I noted there were ribbons given for obedience, among other behavioral matters. The people doing the judging are experts in their field. I don’t know if the judges are limited to judging only toy breeds, working dogs, hounds, or what have you or whether their expertise crosses breeds and types of dogs. But they are judges. They are experts. That know things I don’t know and never will. I could, I know. But I won’t because my interest is superficial and fleeting. Just like my interest in everything else. Wide and shallow. One does not become an expert in anything when one’s interests are wide and shallow. Out of moderate curiosity, I inquired of Mother Google this morning: What is the opposite of a Renaissance Man? She answered with a flood of possibilities, but the arrows whose wounds hurt the most were “simpleton” and “hotshot.”

I have not showered nor shaved this morning, so I must move along. Today at church we have none of the usual churchy stuff; instead, it’s jazz music. I must be clean and clean-shaven to experience it. Otherwise, the context would not be right.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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