A reader commenting on my column about nimrods from Podunk emailed that he appreciates a little context with his news, “a concept that seems to be an endangered species.”
Numbers are just numbers, he wrote. “Data should always be presented in context. Context can make the difference between truth/fact and honesty.”
Anecdotes offered as proof of an argument could also use a little context to bridge the fact-to-honesty gap.
I was thinking about two women I have known, and the gut-wrenching decisions they had to make about the men they loved.
One was married to a favorite relative of mine. They had a long, happy marriage and lived a quiet, ordinary life in the Midwest, with the job, the children, the house in the suburbs.
My relative was, though it sounds quaint today, a sweet man, quick to laugh, slow to anger, always on an even keel.
But then dementia stalked and eventually claimed him. As he deteriorated, he was by turns surly and bitter, becoming at the end a mean man who made everyone in his life utterly miserable.
That gave his wife a life crisis: Stick with him, or walk away?
The same crisis was faced by a younger woman, who had gotten engaged before she came to work at the newspaper in Indiana that employed me. Shortly after the engagement, her exercise-conscious fiancé had some kind of accident with barbells.
I never got the details, but the short version was that his oxygen was cut off for a significant amount of time. He survived, but with a different personality and far fewer IQ points.
Stick with him, or walk away?
As it turned out, each woman made a different choice. My relative’s wife decided to stick with her man. The young woman in my office decided to walk away.
If I had just heard those stories without the background, the way we are presented so much news today, I could be expected to say, well, there is a way one is supposed to behave when a significant other changes, so one woman was right and one was wrong.
But I did know the backgrounds. I knew that my relative’s wife had spent a lifetime with her husband and, through the meanness, she could see the person he used to be and choose to remember that and honor it. And I knew my colleague was facing a lifetime with someone who had become a stranger, nothing like the person she had fallen in love with.
Because I knew the context, I could not say I disagreed with either decision. There were no hard-and-fast rules of life in play, just a struggle toward the least objectionable of bad choices.
Robin Williams once said something that has stuck with me. On first hearing, it sounded wise, in a superficial way, but it took on the poignancy of a tough self-examination when we later learned how tortured his mind was.
“Everyone you meet,” he said, “is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
He added a coda that I would not have: “Be kind. Always.” I might have said something like, “Take a breath. Think about it.” Sometimes, even when you know people’s battles, you are forced to conclude that they still might be jerks. From “take a breath” to “still a jerk” seems a much easier trip to me than from “be kind” to “still a jerk.”
But I appreciate the wisdom of trying to put someone’s words and deeds into a broader perspective, striving for empathy, looking for context.
In so many ways today, we live in a world without context.
We are presented with dire either-or choices (what logicians call bifurcation or a false dichotomy) and told we would much rather pick one or the other. A choice between killing the economy or risking widespread death, between wokeness and racism, between Trump and Never Trump, past sins and current sensibilities, law-and-order and oppression, liberty and license.
There are times when we must recognize clear, bright lines, between right and wrong, good and evil, even productive and wasteful. But there are times when the question isn’t whether there is a line, but where to put it. In our own lives, we seek a balance between self-interest and our duty to others. In our greater society, the eternal goal is to balance liberty and equality.
When to draw a line and when to move it. I think it takes a lifetime and then some to work that out, but it’s the worthiest of struggles.