The Deep/Wide Divide

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I wrote an article two years ago this week for Relevant magazine entitled “Deep and/or Wide.” In the article I explored the tensions between depth and breadth that so characterize many of my chief frustrations in life. Reading it again recently I found that I resonate more than ever with the feelings I was exploring then. Now that I’m a graduate student, the tension between knowing a lot about everything and everything about one thing is never more pronounced. Sometimes I go crazy thinking about the sacrifices of knowledge that must be made in order to be an “academic.” We are encouraged to specialize, specialize, specialize… otherwise who will remember us? But even if it means I won’t “stand out” in the massive field of scholars, is it really worth forsaking a broad, multi-disciplinary approach to life? At some point I guess we all have to limit our selves and our interests to what is marketable… or at least what pays the bills. But that thought weighs heavy on my heart.

In any case, here are a few excerpts from what I wrote two years ago about deep and wide:

“Can we have both? Can the fountains of our lives flow both deep and wide? Perhaps someday, but the more I think about it the more I think it is a dream. Our world pulls us one way or the other. It’s almost impossible to be both deep and wide, and that leaves us with a decision.

The tension here is about methods of approaching the world. Do you aim to encounter things deeply, perhaps partaking of less in life but experiencing those few things for all they’re worth? Or do you go more for breadth and scope, searching and collecting as much of this enormous, wonderful world that you can, even if that means sacrificing depth for breadth?

My generation is a wide-seeking generation. The heavy-hearted weight and awareness of untouched beauty is extraordinarily strong in us. There are socio-economic reasons for our breadth-seeking as well: We feel lost or impotent if we don’t “keep up” with the trend-setting stamina of the merchants of cool. For these and other reasons, we’ve become the generation of accumulated triviality. We are pop-culture savvy, indie-music credible, aware of art, literature, global politics and history, but only to a superficial extent. We are the keepers of immense amounts of information … but all for what?

I’m beginning to rebel from this broad-minded accumulation mentality. I’m beginning to realize that it’s not a bad thing to not know “what’s hot now.” I’m beginning to relinquish my grasp on the reigns of pop culture. I don’t care that I’ve never heard half of the albums on Pitchfork’s Top 100 of 2005. I don’t want to be a frenzied, know-it-all, “one-step-ahead-of-you” hipster anymore. To the extent that I ever was one, it was a pretty annoying chore.

I want depth. I’ll still feign to be diverse and wide in my consumption of experience, but I’m fatigued and overwhelmed by too much of that. I want to pick a few things and dive in deeply. I want to wrestle with existence on the micro level—like Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh or Yasujiro Ozu. It might not be easier—thinking deeply about something rarely is—but it will be more rewarding I think.

In any case, I’m pretty sure the whole deep vs. wide tension comes from the fact that we were created to live both ways. There will be fountains flowing deep and wide, someday, but for now there is not enough water to go around. If there’s rain in one place there’s a drought somewhere else. It’s the whole “divine discontent” thing, you know? We can only pick one direction, give it all we’ve got, and feel the lack of the roads untraversed.”

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2 responses to “The Deep/Wide Divide

  1. It kinda reminds me of what I wrote about today, man. Good luck. It doesn’t get any easier. I like to quote a line from “Shoeless Joe”, by W.P. Kinsella, when I think about life…

    “Success is getting what you want, but happiness is wanting what you get.”

  2. Instead of subjects deep or wide, I’ve been thinking this so much lately about people. The few who genuinely inspire me, intrigue me and how I can get to know *them* before they get too tired of investing in new friendships.

    Thanks for the thought provoking/clarifying post.

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