Your First Steps

Leaping into the limits of our own knowledge.

Matthew Sanders

February 28, 2014 | Fog | March 2014

Everything is right in the world when you wake up. Like a newborn you have re-entered the world, but there is always a presence beyond the morning. There is the lack of knowledge, the full born weight of the world, of time. What will the day hold? When will the fog lift?

It is the plight and the great salvation of man that we do not know what will come before us. When the dawn is broke and the sun arises our day begins, but where will we go? What will we do? Why should we do anything at all? These questions plague us. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously offered his own solution: “Freedom is the reason for reasons”. Yet the morning at once assaults us with the presence of our own freedom and, like a snarky child, it asks what shall you do with your freedom?

The morning fog is a special beast. Mysterious and beautiful, it captivates us with its presence. Of course, everyone learns in school that fog is merely a phenomenon of atmospheric pressure and humidity. It is a cloud that floats among the humans upon the ground. Simply put, that is wondrous. Humanity has long dreamed of flying amongst the clouds. We dream of wings upon our backs like Icarus and of the soft cotton candy texture we know for sure, certainly, the clouds must feel like. Their immateriality, their ethereality as they float above us mocking gravity, captivates us, and draws us to them. We want to enter them and know them.

morning fog

The fog is a cloud. For that reason, what could be better than the fog? They are where our cloud-filled dreams can come partly true. With benevolence they allow us to inspect them, to fulfill our dreams while our two feet rest on earth. You can touch a cloud when you touch fog.

But for all this dreaming there is a flipside to the clouds and the fog that taps into a more basic sensation: the fear of the unknown.

What is unknown scares us because it presents a limit to our knowledge. Our early life is spent trying to rectify, or at least create the sense of fixing, this fear through education. The world is broken down into categories, classes, information, dates, abstraction, and data, to have us walk out of school smarter and more capable to deal with the world, and get a job; form a routine. School tries to prepare us for the unknown, literally, that which is not known.

And much of humanity’s technological and social development has been a massive campaign to master and understand the world around us. To transcend space and time, to manipulate, alter, and destroy, with our own hands. Wars have been fought; great discoveries have been made in search of, and in the name of, knowing with certainty.

But the fog has long been associated with the occult, the spiritual, and the afterlife; the great mysteries in our life. One needs to only cruise through horror genre to see the presence of fog.  Ghosts live within it, it veils our sight, and it seeps through the cracks of a lit doorframe to frighten us as it carries fear toward us like a miasma. Films visualize this phenomenon well.  In the fantastic film The Exorcist, Father Merrin arrives via taxi through a world bathed in fog. The light from the streetlamps and the windows seem unable to escape it. Father Merrin steps from the taxi and begins to walk to where the possessed is housed hidden under thick fog. The horrifying strangeness of possession is visualized in the fog. In The Fog, well, the fog brings with it and encloses some rather unsettling occurrences of the unexplainable variety. Of note from both of these films is that it is not the fog itself that is particularly scary, it is the fact that what lies within it is hidden that creates the unsettling and scary feelings that are the mainstay of the genre. We cannot know for certain what lies within the fog.

Fog presents something abruptly mysterious into our life. In the morning we are awakening into a world with new possibilities, thrown into our own freedom, yet the fog envelops our freedom in ambiguity. The fog is a reflection of our limits of knowledge. The fog beckons us toward our own freedom, yet cloaks that freedom in fear. We attempt to master it, fog lights are installed on our cars, for example, so we may see better when we drive through it, but the fog still remains a presence of uncertainty, our limits of knowledge. Always our narrow cone of vision is obscured, surrounded by thick shrouds. Still we struggle to see, to know, what is within the fog.

It is perhaps a deep irony that our dream of flying through the clouds is illegal when actually flying a plane. Our dream is ignorant of the reality that there may be another plane behind it, another plane within it, a hill hidden by it, or adverse conditions within it, that lead to our peril. We simply cannot know for sure. It is unknown. And when flying a plane, unknowns are profoundly dangerous. The complexity of the machine, the act, and the decision-making processes required, leaves little if no room for ambiguity. But the morning, and the morning fog, is different. Waking up is relatively simple, and natural. As a result the presence of the fog is not an immovable force. We may approach it with our feet still on solid ground.

The morning fog throws our own self into clear light. Each day we are presented with a new limit of knowledge, a new horizon, but this is not to be feared. Do not fear the fog or the lingering questions in the morning for they are necessary. Like the endless transition of morning to night and to morning anew, we must endlessly confront the fog with our freedom. We must step out of certainty, out of our warm homes, into uncertainty, into the fog, and leap into the limits of our knowledge. To know what one does not know is perhaps as important as what one does know. Growing in knowledge and as a person requires risk, and the acceptance of that which is unknown, but not that which is unknowable. Wake up and start living, take those tentative first steps, it is going to be a new day and your freedom can take you anywhere. Even into the fog.

Illustration by Laura C.

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