My daughter’s ribbons, yellow and deep red, hang on the wall over her desk. She earned them a year ago competing in track in the spring and summer. She doesn’t care about the colors or the place they indicate—second, sixth, fourth. To her, each makes an equal decoration.

She keeps their meaning personal and small.

I haven’t yet met the person who doesn’t treat the specific circuit of their life as universal, as the template for human striving. And each one is right. What I live is the brightest glimpse of universe I’ll ever know. But each of us is also wrong for the very same reason.

No one feels the specific pulse of another. No one soaks in another’s sweat or smells the other’s stench as their own.

Humanity’s original sin lies in not accepting this. In insisting that the skin of my existence can clothe your limbs. That the vessels of my brain can know the paths along which your electrical impulses flow.

I wonder whether learning to perceive the distances within me, the various selves that vie inside me with one another at different times throughout my days, might humble me enough to respect the space between me and others. I wonder if it might teach me the perils—and the uses—of extrapolating my experiences onto others.

The writer E.B. White once said, “Remember that all writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.” I love writing because it repeatedly teaches me both the perils and necessity of attempting that translation.

To share words meaningfully with another, I have to try perpetually to accept that my ignorance will always stretch much wider than the small scope of what I know and understand.

But rather than acknowledge this, too often I clash with others while grasping ribbons of certainty I’ve stitched in my imagination into a vast banner of (supposed) understanding that I wave as I fly into battle.

Reluctantly, I’ve arrived at the theory that knowledge isn’t where we fail. What we’re terrible at is admitting our ignorance, the land in which we much more commonly dwell.

Various threads of Buddhist and Taoist philosophy I’ve encountered talk about “beginner’s mind,” which I understand to be a state of open expectation. Not even a beginner comes to learning empty-handed. But what if I could treat my certainties as the ribbons they are rather than try to drape them over everything I perceives?

I think it might be possible to translate ourselves to one another. I think it might be possible to exchange our ribbons and see where they meet. The key lies in the attitudes that I and the other bring to the exchange.

I’m working on it. I’m trying, like my daughter, to keep my certainties personal and small, even as I hang them on the wall for all to see.

2 thoughts on “Ribbons

  1. I love this so much. Especially these images: “Humanity’s original sin lies in . .. insisting that the skin of my existence can clothe your limbs. That the vessels of my brain can know the paths along which your electrical impulses flow.”

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