The Straightness of Lines


A beautiful line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about the meaninglessness of straight lines. And how this line about lines strike me as the profound, the reason is in its simplicity.

How often are we surrounded by lines? A short morning walk reveals — instances of lines.

The sidewalk. In my three years of walking I have only now realized that it rests atop a valley of sorts, its slope now embraced by the autumn leaves. How might my thinking change if my route consists of a forest path, instead of strict linearity? Then beside the linear sidewalk follows the linear road. Both of these linear paths we follow are everyday occurrences. Do they have any influence over our lives? Do they, with cunning subtlety, tell us that our lives are linear?

Maybe it’s just the unfortunate truth of living in Toronto. The roads are grid-like, the cold squares, the jail cells. For the sake of efficiency, for human corpse mass storage, our roads tend to be linear. Perhaps it’s also because linear roads are easier to drive on, easier to plow snow, no corners in which to control the speed. Yes, it is easier; easier to not worry, to plow through life with indifference.

Straight lines are easy. All you have to do is keep going. Keep going straight, no need to think about curving this way or the other. Maybe we think they’re the most efficient path to take. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points.

Yet we know this isn’t always true, unless we believe our lives is empty, Euclidean space.

Now, where did this value of efficiency come from? Why have we structured our lives around the most efficient, the fastest, the most productive?

What if we rid of sidewalks? Just get rid of them. Good intentions for comfortable feet have turned into lifeless prods on the concrete. Of course, along this new path, there may be fallen branches or puddles that block our way. But doesn’t that just add to the meaning of it all? They add variety to our mundane routines.

And it’s not just the paths we follow that bombard us with explicit lines. Poles, signs, crosswalk stripes; tiles, doors, window frames; walls, paper, hardwood floors.

Those are lines leading to nowhere. Amidst the randomness of life there is a constant truth. Another step forward just means another step in the same direction. Why do we fear walking backward? Is someone going to rear end us? No, there’s nothing back there, nothing except for a straight straight line.

Isn’t a straight line merely a human abstraction? Oh yes, geometry, vectors, algebra. Yet with that level of engineering ingenuity they could really think of nothing else but straight table legs. Albeit, this does give us something to yearn for; when we go on those vacations and try to escape this linear urban existence.

Maybe this is what we’re taught to do. Through submission to the first line we see, the teacher’s ruler, to standing in line, a bunch of schoolchildren willfully eager to have their lives restricted.

Oh no, don’t go in circles, they say, you’ll just end up where you’ve started. But those who walk in circles, just for a while, got to see what their linear friends did not. They saw everything around them. While their friends, whether they were staring dead into the future or dead into the past, it’s all the same. Dead line. Yet, a circle is not good enough. A circle is merely a collection of infinite lines.

If our ingenious minds can reduce the disorder of nature to mere lines, surely we can break free of circles and lines. Thoughts meander, let them meander. Our mind wanders, let it wander.

Oh, organize your thoughts, they say. Yet that is only true for talking to other strange creatures. Why organize and restrict when there is beauty in the chaos of thought? Eyes glitter, flashing, darting; signals crashing and colliding. I hope we don’t lose this orchestrated mess.



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