07.22.19 | Going Non-Linear

Linear thinking, for purposes of this session, shall be deemed to mean structured, rational, and evidence-based. Non-linear is, well, Catch-22. Here is an overview (a shorter version of the intro prepared some years ago for our old Highland book club) as a way to frame the discussion:

Abandon first the comfort of any logical time sequence. Catch-22 is a celluloid strip twisted in half and doubled back on itself.

The subject matter is the WWII Squadron 256 (or, more poetically, that's two to the fighting eighth power), presented not so much as a story but as a kaleidoscope: a disorienting collection of character introductions, sleight-of-hand logic, tricks, and paradoxes all mixed together and flushed down the rabbit hole.

This novel was such an assault on my own painfully linear background -- born and bred linear; at a linear time; in a linear place; with a linear education; and (later) a linear profession -- that I recall throwing the book across the room: the reflex of a linear soul beholding a mobius world.

But somewhere these mythic tricks intersect to reveal a larger truth about the limits of rigid thought. It's as if one so totally enamored with the self-defining internal logic of mathematics is suddenly contemplating the square root of negative one.

Our book group has taken a low-level pass at some of life's paradoxes: e.g. meaning (Camus' paradox of the absurd: we value our lives and existence so greatly, but at the same time we know we will eventually die, and ultimately our endeavors are meaningless); or the search for enlightenment, even love (the harder we try to achieve it, the more difficult it is to attain); and so on.

The novel’s setting is war -- in this case, the last "good" one -- but the subject is really the absurdity that arises from the surrender of the soul, whether it be to a system, a government, an ideology or a religion. The book revels in the non-linear paradoxes.

Let us now test our own comfort level with non-linear thinking. Start in the big theaters. Take war. Can anyone -- even in the context of 9/11 -- honestly justify (or even rationalize) the cost (lives, money, credibility) to this country from its perpetual war stance, starting with Vietnam (Vietnam Comes Home, MM 9/25/17)? Linear thinking can breed locked-in belief systems. As a fun aside the Pentagon may be taking note of Non-linear Thinking with one-time Steely Dan and the Doobie Brother guitarist Jeffrey "Skunk" Baxter chairing the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense.

Or take the economy. Our national debt is way outside of any logical, rational understanding. The stock market is no longer about pricing anticipated future earnings, only about front-running the Fed's application of cheap credit. Money itself becomes little more than a non-linear concept (click: Full Faith and Credit, MM 2/4/19; Psychology of Money, MM 12/3/18). As they say, if you don't know where you're going any road will take you there. Then again, perhaps the world is behaving in a linear fashion but we just remain clueless about certain key factors. Or, worse, we know all the factors and it's just a matter of time before we regress to the eventual mean.

Perhaps we could share our personal experiences operating in a non-linear world. There are, of course, the everyday (seeming) paradoxes: the more you hate a trait in someone else, the more likely you are avoiding it in yourself; people who can't trust, can't be trusted; the more you try to impress others, the less impressed they'll be; the more afraid you are of death, the less you'll be able to enjoy life; the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know; etc.

Yet the most fascinating examples might lie beyond the ordinary i.e. those times in your life when your best actions seemed at the time counterintuitive, only to find that the non-linear road taken "made all the difference."

Jeffery Baxter: On Non-Linear Thinking

Steve SmithComment