Opinion Piece: Limitation and Making New Friends

            It is. No truer statement can be said about reality than this. The immense complexity of the nature in which we live, the nature of nature, is beyond human comprehension – bar the sliver of our perceptions and the sum total of our inquiry which remains inadequate. In the attempts to conceptualize the sum total of reality, our ancestors, as Eric Neumann noted, used symbols and images to represent its nature; Plato’s sphere, “the round,” the egg, the rotundum, and eventually, the ouroboros[1]. The explicitly of language left much to the imagination in a way that symbols and art maintain, and so, if one’s aim is to accurately represent immense complexity, images better represent that complexity. Thinkers such as Albert Camus called the struggle between reality’s complexity and our own limitation “absurd” – like moving the ocean with a pail[2]. And Jean-Paul Sartre implicitly noted in Existentialism is a Humanism, that limitation results in the sacrifice of one objective to another whenever one chooses. It has been my experience that service men and women are primed to this fact. Yet its consequences, while myriad, can result in a disconnection from their fellow students.

            It is a truism in cognitive psychology that human beings rely on concepts and categories to comprehend the world. Human beings are limited and thus, cannot conceptualize the whole of reality accurately. Instead, they create imperfect but pragmatic concepts – general ideas about objects, people, and patterns in the world, that work well enough to continue acting towards one’s goal. Like a map, these concepts outline something external to one’s own consciousness by which they can navigate. Simplification of this map is necessary as having a perfect one to one map of the world would be to have the world itself. It would be unruly and effectively useless given the function of a map and the previously stated limitations on human cognition. This is to say that limited concepts and the categories that contain them are necessary.

            However, one of these concepts, that I have often seen veterans form after having attended university, is of their academic peers. Veterans are often older than their peers, they generally have a greater variety of life experiences, a function of age and employment, and have been faced with the consequences of their limitation, the ultimate consequence being death, in a way their peers have not. This conception of their peers is not wholly bad. Rather, it is, as is the function of concepts, generally accurate. However, the expectation of its accuracy is an obstacle to any veteran who hopes to form meaningful relationships with their peers.

            If one abstracted out the commonalities of these assumptions, the distillation could be stated as, “the greater sum total of knowledge is inherent in veterans,” or, “the less sum total of knowledge is inherent in their academic peers.” Too often veterans assume that the potential truth value of this statement means that they have nothing to learn from their peers. It does not take into account the difficulties and extracted wisdom from those difficulties that can be experienced by others. If friendship demands the love of another – and the reciprocal exchange of information, wisdom and advice, then denying outright the presence of that information, denies friendship. Instead of meaningful relationships one will either be bereft of human connection following the disregard for its fundament or be entwined in a distortion of friendship in which one presumes oneself superior, where the exchange of information will be replaced with the bestowing of information by the veteran to their supposed subordinates.  

            Perhaps one wishes for a superior-subordinate relationship, which is no friendship, from their peers. I would deeply advise against this. Everyone’s knowledge is incomplete. If another holds information that you do not, and you are unwilling to acknowledge that information, then you will only be denying yourself clarity, illumination, even, if I may risk hyperbole, enlightenment for a false sense of superiority.

“awareness… allows us to see another as who they are – not as what we expect them to be”

            The alternative is this: Diffuse your expectations and accept others as they are. Understand that you have a concept and that concept is not the person. It is general. An expectation, the assumption of an outcome, inherently denies the possibility of other potentialities. Deep friendships, where pillars of guidance, wisdom, and even love, uphold the relationship, cannot be realized if one’s expectations are of its pillars non-existence.

            The psychologist Jean Piaget believed that we had to update our concepts, both by assimilating information into them, and by adjusting our concepts themselves. Accommodate new people and their unexpected quirks, into your concepts and life. This requires humility, the recognition of our inadequacy, limitation of our knowledge, and awareness, which allows us to see another as who they are – not as what we expect them to be. It is no small statement to say that humility is correlated with the need for achievement[3], nor would it be a stretch to say the need for achievement is correlated with achievement itself. Even selfishly, one ought to be humble if they wish to achieve. My advice to you, new veteran: Be humble. Be aware. And be ready to learn from those around you.

[1] The Origins and History of Consciousness by Eric Neumann

[2] The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

[3] R.E. Landrum