07 February 2018

In Praise of Shadows: Or Living to Learn with Uncertainty

This off season frustrates writer and fan alike.  A talent log jam continues to impede the off season.  Early on, this was a pretty wondrous thing.  No longer were hopes and dreams dashed to bit during and shortly after the winter meetings.  Free agent signings were allowed to dance in our heads over the winter holidays, but those dances have grown stale and reporting dates for Spring Training are almost here.  What once was a wondrous discussion of how the Orioles would fill up their starting rotation has instead turned into a dreadful pondering about what if the music ends without the a chair to sit on.  To put it succinctly, the Orioles have some uncertainty and uncertainty is a friend of few people.

We all have a familiarity with uncertainty; be it with the outcomes of baseball active roster construction or with our daily commute.  How we handle this varies from person to person, but in general there are three schools of approach.  Two of the major ones are optimistic aggression and defensive pessimism.  Yes, these are extremes, but they are two of the major tent poles that house everyone.

Positive aggression has an allure.  It reminds me of Billy Beane talking about Lenny Dykstra in Micheal Lewis's Moneyball.  Beane was the athletic wunderkind while Dyskstra was  one the thin side of tools.  However, Dykstra saw every failure as an event to forget; as simple bad luck.  He was always sure that he would kill the pitcher with his next opportunity.  Where doubt entered into any decision making process, he overwhelmed that with imaging pure and utter success.  What is alluring about it is to be free from self-doubt, hesitation, and crippling concerns.

How we can do this can range from pure wish casting to imagine preferable outcomes to pushing the thumb down on the projection spectrum.  Science does validate this approach as beneficial.  Being optimistic about your world around and your place in it tends to mean that you do much better being successful in that world.  So, at the plate, optimism helps the final score, but perhaps not so much optimism on your couch in February.  There are limits to its application, but optimism will probably make your life better.

However, defensive pessimism can be a useful approach as well.  The idea here is that you prepare for the worst and enjoy anything above that expectation.  In general, defensive pessimism seems just as successful as optimistic outlooks.  Though, it seems that pessimism is probably poor for your well being.  The studies do not appear to measure the positive impact of being pleasantly surprised, but it appears that the chronic condition of expecting the worse increases certain health risks (e.g., heart disease).  Now, of course, these studies are about overall life perspectives and how those impact the ability and well being of an individual.  It may well be that people who are pessimistic about the Orioles are simply highly compartmentalized and that these studies have no true application to their lives.

Now, there is a third perspective: acceptance of uncertainty.  Twenty years ago, I read Junichiro Tanazaki's In Praise of Shadows (avid readers may recognize that I wrote about this wocolumn for MASN).  It is a quick read, an essay measuring in at 56 pages.  The work was published in 1933, a period of dramatic changes for Japan.  The country was transitioning from one that was very inward looking in terms of practical life and aesthetics into a society that was steadily embracing Western perspectives from Europe and North America.  It was a difficult and frustrating time for many whether they were invested in retaining their past or whether they were busily embracing their concept of progress.  You could draw many comparisons to that time as you could to baseball in the early 2000s if you are ever so inclined.
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The passing of the familiar to the uncertainty of a supposedly progressive future is something we all can relate whether it be to a new school, career path, marriage, kids, or the loss of a loved one.  Sometimes the uncertainty is exhilarating and sometimes it is debilitating.  Humorously enough, one of the sixteen explorations of competing applications of philosophical thought that Tanazaki puts forth is a comparison between the Western design of toilets and traditional Japanese monastery lavatories.  The Western ideal--harsh brightly lit spaces, glaring white, with no corner left without illumination--intends to offer complete transparency and fully define everything into a strong measure of certainty.  The process never accepts the craft of proper restroom maintenance, but to ensure the caretaker makes great effort to show you how well they keep this area.  In contrast, Japanese aesthetic tradition is extolled as a great virtue and surmised as where all great haiku are born.  This aesthetic embraces the outside world, incorporates shadows and rich lacquered surfaces, and highlighting the grain and imperfections of wood.  It encourages you to accept uncertainty.  To place that part of existence away from your mind and to focus or maybe even enjoy that with which you can actually perceive.

Evolutionarily speaking, being certain about the uncertain can render benefits.  By defining the world around us, we can establish a range of possible occurrences.  For instance, if your tribe expects all outside tribes to be dangerous then your tribe may be well prepared for particularly catastrophic interactions by reacting strongly and violent to all outside tribes.  That expectation or stereotype may be wrong, but it may be beneficial to a critical degree when it would actually be an accurate assumption.  That false sense of knowing can be useful.  It probably is why we are so conditioned to fit into one of those first two groups: optimists and pessimists.  You can plan to that.  You can square those part of the world away.  Devise applicable protocols for infrequent incidents.  Your life seems more in control.  Even if the long term nature of pessimism may have adverse health effects, perhaps it is better than to be stuck in the void of wanting to know without being able to know.

To me, when I read In Praise of Shadows twenty years ago, I recognized how firmly I had to know things.  How much I needed the world to be defined.  It was not necessarily that I was liberal in taking the shortcuts that stereotypes provide, but I certainly was less interested in methodology of determining correctness than I was in being able to perceive that I was correct.  What I took forward with me though was that I need to strive into something I referred to as practiced indifference.  In other words, we can plan and ponder what the world is or will be, but not spiral when my knowledge starts thinning out.  Instead, I practiced to accept that some aspects of my own knowable world will open when they open whether there is a reason for when that happens or even if there is no reason for when it happens.

So, it worked for me.  I let go of the need to know things in life and replaced that with the open and interested exploration of what I was able to look at.  And it may be something that might not work for others.  Some have grown frustrated with me for my lack of extreme disapproval for Dan Duquette's tenure and others have become frustrated that I do not speak about his greatness.  Some claim that my goal is to be measured without true assessment of the positives and negatives.  Rather, I would say my outlook is one where I require a certain amount of clear facts before I become committed to a certain outlook.  Yes, conclusions should be fluid entities that can alter based on new information coming in, but we should acknowledge the uncertainty in a given scenario to ensure that our conclusions are meaningful.

This in no way means to be paralyzed by inaction.  If the facts are not clear and presentable to determine the ability of the current front office to bring success to the Orioles, then we fall back to different ways to assess the club.  We can look to exhibited philosophies, of actions, of expressed desires while noting that this information is often not an actual representation of the objectives of the front office.  Some of it is intentionally misleading.  Some of it is a product of constraints put into place by ownership, by occupying one of the smaller markets in Major League Baseball, or simply a matter of logistics.  While I am reserved in my declaration of where Dan Duquette stands on the spectrum of GM aptitude, I can say that the style he exhibits would not be my own or what I would prefer to see with the club.  However, I can say that perhaps his style may well be best for the context this club exists in.  Ultimately though we are left with fairly uncertain terms to provide a judgement, so I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that uncertainty.

And that is where we are.  We simply do not know what the Orioles are doing.  We simply do not know what the rest of MLB is doing.  There is very little movement anywhere.  Yes, the Orioles have needs, but so do others.  For me, it is difficult to get upset or irritated because there are shadows everywhere.  We have no clarity.  In those shadows, you can envision great, wonderful things happening.  You might also be able to extrapolate and conjure truly catastrophic outcomes.  Or you can just sit and wait until something more clear comes through while you may or may not gently infer about just what might well be happening..

So, I ask you not to lecture me about "What does pessimism ever get you?" or "You are deluding yourself with Orange Kool-Aid."  Both of those perspectives have merit.  For me, I find the required dogma of those outlooks to be a bit exhausting, unproductive, and fraught with unneeded surprises.  Just leave me in the shadows until the light naturally breaks through.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Just watch the most beautiful game for the art form itself. If we win a World Series, great.
If not the sun comes up tomorrow.