Deep and/or Wide
By Brett McCracken
January 31, 2006
It was one of my favorite Sunday school songs growing up: “Deep and Wide.” The part where the words in question become nothing more than silent hand gestures was just so cool to my six-year-old ears (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I apologize). I didn’t care that the song was completely arbitrary and gimmicky. It was just fun. Back then the whys behind things were not as important to me as the thats. All those kooky kids songs existed, so I embraced them. I wasn’t elitist; I wasn’t particular. I was just a blissfully ignorant kid.
A couple decades later, and I’m thinking about “Deep and Wide” on a deeper level. When you think about it, the deep vs. wide dialectic is kinda profound. 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?
It is a question that has haunted me ever since I first viewed American Beauty in the theater as a sophomore in high school. The scene where Ricky Fitts watches the video of a wind-whipped plastic bag and utters the words “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world … I feel like I can’t take it” struck a chord deep within me. I too had felt the weight of beauty on my heart—the hollowness of knowing that so much more truth, beauty and goodness exists in the world than I could ever experience. That film inspired me to think wide and chart as much of the ocean of beauty as I could.
In the years since, I’ve done my very best to see every worthy film, hear every lauded album, read every classic book, view every buzz-worthy television show and attend as many concerts, art exhibitions, sporting events and/or other cultural events as possible. I’ve experienced a lot of beauty, and it has been very enriching. But like Gatsby with his green light across the bay, my gaze was always on the next thing.Such is the curse of the “wide” perspective. You experience a lot, but in the process of trying to capture as much of the rushing waterfall’s onslaught, you hardly have a chance to breathe. It’s exhausting. Unfortunately, the “wideness” of our world has become even more overwhelming in the Internet-flattened information age we’ve grown up in. Everything is accessible—every place, any movie, any song from yesterday or 1,000 years ago. History’s entire catalogue is open for exploration, and that is unbearable access.
My generation is a wide-seeking generation. Because of the aforementioned limitless access, 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 anything is rarely all that pleasurable—but it will be more rewarding I think.
Even so, the pull of width is still strong, still valuable. “The well-rounded man” goes far in this world, right? And I sometimes fear that focusing too much on depth instead of width might lead down a path towards the type of 1950s, Cold-War technocratic specialization that builds walls instead of bridges. It’s easy to get so immersed in one thing that you lose perspective on anything different. The 1960s counterculture was driven by a rebellion against this sort of “specialist” man, and it foretold the Ricky Fitts generation’s disillusionment with narrow-mindedness and search for all-encompassing living. In a way my generation is becoming like a pack of purpose-driven hippies—wanting a little bit of everything but willing to work their butts off for it. I’m not quite sure if that’s a good thing to be.
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.