Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Uncertainty of the Human Experience

            The Principles of Uncertainty reminded me a lot of Humans of New York.  For those who are not familiar, Humans of New York (HONY) is a project started by a guy named Brandon in 2010 in which he photographs people around New York City.  Brandon asks the subjects of his pictures a few questions about their lives to use as the caption to the photo.  Then, these pictures and captions are posted on HONY’s blog and Facebook page for the public to read.  Originally, Brandon started HONY to “create an exhaustive list of New York City inhabitants,” but now he has travelled all over the world, documenting the human experience in various cities.        
            The reception of Humans of New York has been phenomenal; the blog allows readers around the world to catch a glimpse into a stranger’s life, if only for a moment.  The caption that goes along with the picture is what tends to strike most people, and HONY runs the gamut when it comes to the diversity of human experiences.  There is no shortage of sassy old women, truthful little kids, middle aged people struggling with financial or family issues, or immigrants admitting they appreciate America, but it is hard to succeed here.  Humans of New York publishes every story whether they are entertaining, sad, or bitter—these stories and emotions are all part of being human which should be celebrated. 
            The Principles of Uncertainty reminded me of HONY because while the book is specific to Kalman’s worldview, she is a conscious observer of how other people have impacted herself, similar to Brandon’s story.  In the chapter titled “Completely”, Kalman includes two photographs mirroring each other on each page, so the photograph is similar, but her captions may or may not be related.  On pages 205-207, there is a woman who wears a black bow in her white hair, but each picture is of a different woman in a different context.  The captions reads “in the Hermitage you would see this bow on this woman.  Again.  And again.  And then have tea or vodka.  You would be so grateful to follow her and see that bow” (205-207 Kalman).  Kalman may not know the woman with the bow, but that woman reminded her of the Hermitage (an art museum in Russia) and that reminded her of another woman with a similar bow.  She mentally makes all of these connections between total strangers regardless of whether they are significant or fleeting figures in her life. Kalman documents her encounters with all types of people, both living and dead, who have impacted her worldview in some way.
            Therefore, while HONY takes portraits of people to create a comprehensive view of the human experience, Kalman does the inverse and produces pictures of other people to create her own worldview.  But I think Kalman ties the two together well with this concept of uncertainty because really nothing is certain.  With HONY, Brandon never knows what stories these people, who would otherwise be strangers, have to share.  We cannot answer with absolute certainty many of the existential questions Kalman raises in her book.  In humor, we never know if other people will laugh at our intended or unintended humor.  Without knowing the outcome of humor or without knowing how our lives will turn out or who we will randomly meet someday, there is inherent risk in most life endeavors simply because the outcome could be horrendous. 
On the flipside, Kalman knows there will never be concrete answers to “how are we all so brave as to take step after step?  Day after day?” (42 Kalman).  We will never be able to be truly certain about most things in life because we do not all live the same lives or meet the same people, making it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to fundamentally understand the human condition that applies to every person’s life.  The point of HONY and Kalman’s book is to try to understand each other and ourselves a bit better so as to be a little more certain.  Humor, HONY, and Kalman all urge us to ask ourselves hard questions about what it means to be human and if we actually understand each other or if we merely live in assumptions.  All three urge us to not only yearn for certainty through empathy, but to also find the beauty in this uncertainty, recognizing that the possible answers to Kalman’s questions are limitless.     

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