I walked at Burgoyne Bay this morning just before the return of heavy rains once more and explored some high trails below the peak of Mount Maxwell, camera in hand. Scattered across the steep tree-covered slopes were many conglomerate boulders, some bigger than houses, that had chipped off the cliffs above. I walked under low cloud, a rising wind sighed in the tree tops and creeks roared in full spate down to the bay far below. Eventually I arrived at the granite headland at the northern entrance to Burgoyne Bay and then began to walk back to my car waiting at the head of the bay just as the first raindrops of the deluge began. To this point it had been a normal, solitary exploration. Then things began to take a more technicolour turn.
A young man, maybe in his thirties, sat beside the trail and asked if he could walk with me. What I did not understand then was that I had been seized upon by the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem who 'stoppeth one of three'. He turned out to be a flat-earther and his role for the next half hour walk was to convince me that this 3D. round earth idea that so many of us share was a result of brainwashing by a massive financial/ governmental conspiracy. Now, I can be pretty sharp sometimes, so I realized that I needed to tread carefully as this person was in the grip of a powerful delusion and would cling to it, perhaps fiercely, if I outright laughed in his face. Besides, I will talk to anyone and I was interested in his belief processes. It is not so long ago after all since Galileo came close to being burned at the stake for saying that the ( round) earth revolved around the sun. Human beings have shared varied sets of beliefs over the centuries and have defended them to the death.
OK, so we got down to the nitty-gritty when I used the example of being on the open ocean with a circle of tossing waves visible from on deck of about three miles radius before the curvature of the earth hide the rest, and the freighter that came up OVER the horizon showed just its masts and funnels at first. No, no, he argued, it was just the vanishing point. If I used binoculars or a telescope I would see the whole boat! Presumably if I looked far enough the rim of the flat earth would show up - on a clear day you can see forever. And the sun was small and circled around, sometimes it was even in the clouds. Well, you can see that either he or I was employing some pretty creative thinking and I appreciate that in people. Unfortunately he was also getting more and more excited. He knew that I and so many others languished in the grip of a powerful delusion that he had been struggling to correct for a long time, so I backed off in friendly sort of way and it all ended peacefully as I dropped him off at the main road.
But here is the thing, we mostly share a set of common beliefs about the composition of the world and humankind’s place and function upon it. As Kenneth Clark says, a civilization falls apart when its members no longer share a common world view. Most of us presently accept a round earth, gravity, and so on because it seems to explain a lot and it works. Once though, that was heresy. So it pays to listen carefully to seemingly odd ideas, they may simply be an older order on replay, but on the other hand they may contain the germs of a future one.
Something I skipped carefully over is the whole issue of mental illness, and I do not mean to make light of it. Was this man temporarily in the grip of drugs, an irrational episode..... ? What I thought of was the internet and the whole area of conspiracy theories. It was more real for him to believe that the whole space program ( with those fabricated round earth photos) was a multi-trillion dollar con job. But whatever his constructed version of reality, it may have been a last ditch effort to keep his mind from spinning completely away. Looked at that way, he needed to keep his ship, if not on an even keel, at least still swimming.
Listening to NXNW this morning on CBC radio I was treated to June Goldsmith's explanations of Chopin. Not only did I receive a deeper understanding of his music ( and music in general) but perhaps more importantly it set me off on a thought journey of my own. Since last weeks encounter with the 'Flat Earth' person on my walk along the shore of Burgoyne Bay I have been thinking about how our minds get organized: what gets attention, becomes a dominant way of thinking and behaving, and what gets dropped through lack of use. We may be aware that 'genius' personalities are somehow so often very specialized, but never make the leap to think about what passes as normal. With the flat earther it was not difficult to recognize aberrations in his thinking, but what about my own? After all if I could question his thought processes, then I should become more aware of my own. That is the value of challenges*, they make us question and that is the first step in creating something new, in reality or in thought.