Straight Lines Never Stay Straight

Ruin by the Sea (1881) by Arnold Böcklin from The Cleveland Museum of Art

The straight line. We look around and see them everywhere. Houses are built out of straight lines and flat planes. Our roads lie in grids, numbered and dotted with equally spaced houses. Filtered light through square framed windows cascades down on clean, flat flooring. We read in straight lines. We build our wares on straight assembly lines. We arrange our lives in clean, linear, uncompromising order. It is perhaps the goal of humanity, to place order on the chaos. We desire the certainty of linearity. A is followed by B which is followed by C. Monday leads into Tuesday. Life leads straight and predictably into death. But all of these clean lines and apparent certainty are a sad delusion. Certainty is the greatest farce. There is a reason why God does not build with straight lines.

The world we so arrogantly attempt to tame exists in total and uncompromising chaos. She cannot be confined by fragile human order. For her, B does not follow A because A and B do not exist. If humans were to vanish, so would our sad letters. The roads we carve into her jagged surface to allow us to travel quickly in straight lines are impermanent. They must be constantly kept up lest they begin to betray their earthly duty to nature’s chaos. The illusion is maintained, almost inescapably when one takes straight roads to one’s regularly scheduled job and consumes regularly scheduled food cooked by some unknown person, returning home on those same straight roads in a car that runs predictably to a house that rises from the ground like a crystalline box. It is hard to forget that the lights that turn on when you hit the switch, the gas that flows when light your stove, the machines that cool and heat your home, and the water that flows through your pipes is the result of hundreds of fragile human constructs constantly in a state of returning to nature’s chaos and requiring perpetual upkeep. You sit at the miracle of your computer and look at your arrogant schedule you’ve made and you take your medicine to control your body and you let yourself be seduced by the illusion.

A straight line drawn upon the ground will never remain straight. The earth shifts and moves as it travels at eyewattering speeds through the unfathomable darkness of space. In only a few centuries, the house that you broke your back to build and where you raised your children will cease to exist in any recognizable form. In only a few centuries, the company to which you dedicated your life will exist only as an obscure entry in some digital encyclopedia or government ledger. Your progeny will know you only as the source of certain elements of their genetic sequence and nothing more. How well do you know your great-great grandparents?

No plan remains in tact. No effort is remembered forever. No straight line ever remains straight. And despite this, we continue to draw straight lines. We draw up budgets and schedules and plans and pretend like any of it matters. We pretend like we are capable of planning for the future. We pretend like our straight lines will remain straight.

One day that schedule will cease to have meaning. The meeting you were running fifteen minutes late for will become a silly aspirational relic of the grand delusion to which you once subscribed. When one car meant to travel straight suddenly deviates from the path you so ignorantly assumed it would travel and smashes into you, you are returned to the very state in which the whole world had always existed. Your straight lines and sterile interpretation of the world no longer isolates you from the disheartening tenuousness of your existence. When twisted metal is propelled through what was once your leg, the certainty of something as primal as walking vanishes as shattered glass paints your supple cheeks. You lie there bleeding out in the wreck of your once predictable vehicle realizing for the first time in your life that the next few hours are not now nor were ever guaranteed All your plans for the future, all those lines you drew, they cease to have any meaning.

The world you wake up to every day does not exist in reality like it does in your sterilized mind. The world we live in moves and shifts, burns and freezes, kills off and gives life, tortures and soothes, begins and ends. Everything you try so hard to do to stave off the chaos can be obliterated in the shortest of instances: a natural disaster, a medical emergency, human cruelty, unfortunate circumstances, the resurgence of poor decisions you’ve tried to bury, and so on. In the next moment, your life could come crashing down and the world would keep on turning, bubbling, and burping. The straight line you drew for yourself could be split apart and made no more notable than any other crevice on this scarred earth.

What is one to do in the face of such a hopeless reality? The obvious resort would be to become drunk on nihilism. But this is unsatisfactory. To accept the chaos of the world would be to accept defeat. While it is hopeless and deluded to believe unquestioningly in the security of lines, their utility has undeniably lead to unparalleled human flourishing. Because as tenuous as our individual lines are, billions and billions of lines all pointing in the same direction prove much harder to disturb. The old adage that one stick is easy to snap but a bundle of enough sticks is impossible to break is dishearteningly true. One disturbed human line does not distract from the overall direction of progress against the chaos. Perhaps one day, humans will have drawn enough lines to snuff out the unpredictability of nature. But for now, we all must do our part to maintain the illusion until that illusion finally becomes a reality.

Perceiving the world forever from the Midwest. Always looking to learn something.

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