“Context is all”–John Updike

It sure is.

smaller, specific details————————————larger, general contexts

On the imaginary continuum above, there are specific, separate details which have their own merit, especially in helping us to perceive and know more carefully and fully. God can be in the details, as can beauty, truth, understanding, depth, and appreciation.
Though, by themselves, they often suggest other possibilities, truths, meanings, and significance once they are responded to and creatively understood in terms of other known information, other details, situations, and contexts of varying kinds.

The other end of the continuum would be context and it is this that helps us to make sense of our experiences, our impressions, our responses, ourselves, others, situations, and the myriad details encountered in life. As Updike writes in the last stanza of “My Mother at Her Desk”, his mother, was somewhat limited in perspective because she was more/too focused on details:

But above a book,/she’d lift her still young face and say, “Such ugly words!”/ as if each stood alone.

He responds thus:

No, no, I thought,/context is all.”

And he is absolutely right. For instance, if a fridge conks out, one has to notice the detail that it is defunct. But the importance of the detail arises when one understands what this defunctness means on a short-term or long-term basis? (Milk products will sour, drinks will be warm, ice will melt, etc.)

Specific details without a person’s perception, understanding, and consciousness dead-end and mean little, which is why one sometimes hears people saying “I don’t know what to do” amid a zillion possibilities and choices. Similarly, for instance, the many beautiful details of a garden or a painting can be limited to superficial, surface impressions and fast, ready dismissals in this so-hurry-up age.

But if one really pays attention to details and extends one’s perceptions–perhaps accompanied by/with empathy, imagination, and creative processing, then something larger–a context–begins to emerge and suggest itself. In fact, many people are simply and commonly limited to surface impressions, never going beyond the immediate details of passing moments. They largely don’t know themselves and others simply because they don’t extrapolate from, connect, or reflect on the details, putting them in contexts for understanding, never mind appreciation.

Consciousness requires putting the details of one’s life experience and observations into context. In that way, one’s knowledge and self truly begin to grow. One becomes ‘larger’ and is more aware (i.e., not ‘sleeping’), forming more focused opinions on what is important, relevant, meaningful, or not.

In any case, we all live in different contexts consisting of many life details. These contexts make up our lives and who we are. They, in turn, can be many or few, larger or smaller depending on our learning, opportunities, and attitudes.

For example, if someone wanted to get closer to me or understand me, he/she’d have to understand the particular contexts of my childhood, my educational path, my working career, and the values and beliefs which contextualize my choices and behaviours within moments and situations today. (This blog offers much of that sort of information, incidentally.) Otherwise, others would be scratching the surface of my actual life with mere exterior details that limit any depth of understanding and appreciation.
Context is all; it is everything–making up our life-stories, past, present, and future. No one decision, no matter how limited or limiting, is ever made without a known, intuited, or ignored context. There are possibilities implicit within details, and these imply or reflect contexts, real or imagined.

A life, then, is made up of contexts even if a person never fully sees or understands them, even if the person is mired in or limited by the specific details of that person’s life. There is always a ‘forest’ beyond ‘the trees’. There are unlimited patterns, contexts, and mysteries which open up to reflective, conscious minds. In particular, it is, always, in those patterns and contexts that one will find one’s true and deeper self as well as personal meanings and life significance.
This concept of details and context can also be understood in terms of say, reading a novel. We immerse ourselves in the details of plot and the unfolding context of the main character, responding to his or her experiences and observations. What we ‘take away’ from the book is dependent, always, on our ability to contextualize the details of the characters’ lives, and to apply these to our own lives, minimally reflecting on how character contexts reflect our own life contexts and story. Again, if we hope to learn, to grow, and to progress in some way/s, we need to make connections, perceive themes or larger patterns of contexts, and inevitably contextualize. Otherwise, we are limited to/by many disparate, disconnected, disjointed details or the most baseline/basic information and impressions.

Context=”The Big Picture” or Big Picture Consciousness


Etc. 2  Speaking as a former English teacher, I would add that that was one of the most satisfying concepts to teach relative to writing. Namely, that the specific words of a sentence had to fit the context of that sentence–which helped in finding the right or an appropriate word; that every specific sentence needed to contribute to or add to the context of a paragraph’s topic sentence, and–larger still–the context of the composition’s thesis or main purpose/focus.

Similarly, relative to literary analysis, specific details of an interpretation or reading needs to take in all of the specifics of a work we are given by an author. Only in that way can we arrive at a reasonable, plausible interpretation (called in my time ‘a close reading’ as opposed to a ‘closed reading’), understanding, and appreciation of the work. Again, in the above two examples, the specific details inevitably lead to or clarify the larger contexts, meanings, purpose, and significance.


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