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Try the High Line. There’s a freedom in losing your bearings

Think how refreshing it would be if, once in a while, people admitted that they weren't sure about things.

On the west side of Manhattan, at the corner of Gansevoort Street and Washington Street, is the start of the High Line. An unremarkable, grey staircase leads up to the abandoned freight railway track 30 feet above street level. Plenty has been written about this new kind of park – its innovative reinvention of industrial space; the way nature can reclaim anything, given time and opportunity; how it represents a rare case of public benefit triumphing over private greed. (In Chelsea, which the High Line traverses, real estate goes for about $1,400 per square foot.)

Aside from that, it’s a pleasure to walk, even on a freezing December afternoon. Partly this is because of the delicacy of its design – the raised path threads through wild grasses and shrubs, passing viewing platforms and mini-amphitheatres built into the structure that open up a view across the Hudson. Then there’s the escape it offers from Manhattan. You’re up – where everything is in that reaching city – and out, unleashed from the grid system of the streets.

The grid is a gift to the tourist. I can pretend I know the city quite well, when in fact, like any other person who can count, I can work out where I am thanks to the streets being numbered. You can glide up and across the city without glancing at a map as though you’ve been doing it for years. There’s no need to think; the grid shepherds you around its pattern like a protective parent. But after a while there’s something unrelenting about it – you can’t get off. At times, after hammering up 40 blocks or across a few avenues, you want to slip down an alleyway, cut a corner. But you’re locked in – which is why, when you ascend the steps to the High Line, there is a sense of relief. The path curves: you’re free.

The fix is in

At times, the way we read and write and talk about the world can feel a little like being trapped in a grid system. Our culture rarely allows for curves. We like facts, certainty and answers. We also seem to like opinions: strong, unmalleable opinions. Take, for example, the recent case of the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at King Edward VII’s Hospital. This story is surely nothing more than an accumulation of human miscalculation, unforeseen consequence and tragic event. Yet within minutes of hearing the news of the nurse’s death, the media was aflame with moralising judgement and furious pronouncements on who was to blame.

This seems to be the way it goes now: something happens –often something we know little about – and we feel obliged to conjure up an opinion and share it with anyone who’ll listen. Just as the grid system curtails options –you can go up or down, right or left – so we seem only able to talk in terms of black or white, right or wrong, for or against. We demand fixed positions, the security of that unforgiving grid.

I know, I know, there are columns to fill and tweets to send but, right now, outrage feels cheap. Once, we kept it in reserve for condemning massacres or racism; now, we fulminate at equal volume about the terribly sad death of a nurse and the latest idiocy from the mouth of Donald Trump.

Sometimes, I wonder where all these opinions come from. An admission: quite often I don’t have an opinion. Frequently that’s due to ignorance but occasionally it’s because the matter in hand seems a bit complicated – both sides have a point and I’m woefully impressionable. Yet opinion is now our currency. Journalists and politicians, authors and artists, comedians and campaigners are all more likely to attract the lucrative glow of publicity by broadcasting a view, preferably one that is caveat-free, verging on the extreme and condensable into 140 characters.

I know that in many walks of life having a view and sticking to it are the bold and responsible things to do. Politics would malfunction pretty quickly (see George Osborne’s Budget of March 2012) if politicians kept reversing their positions. Other “opinion-formers”, as they’re known, are there to help vague people such as me decide what they think and I’m grateful for their efforts. But sometimes I wish they wouldn’t bother; I don’t mind being vague. It’s not that I have no opinions at all: I’m fairly sure on the death penalty and child labour (against), and gay marriage (for). But there are plenty more that fall into a grey area and I think that’s probably where they should stay.

Every now and then it would be lovely to read a book without a thesis, where the author concludes by throwing up her hands up and saying, “You know what? I don’t know. I’m torn. It’s a tricky one. So shoot me!” I wouldn’t begrudge politicians doing it either. Think how refreshing it would be if, once in a while, they acknowledged that they didn’t know the answer and maybe they’d never be sure but they were willing to give it a go and hoped things would turn out for the best. But it’s hardly vote-winning, is it?

A certain ratio

There’s a passage in Michael Lewis’s recent Vanity Fair profile of Barack Obama that tackles this:

“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 per cent chance that it isn’t  going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralysed bythe fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.

Feigning total certainty: we all do it, all the time. Parents have to seem certain to children, teachers to pupils, doctors to patients. We’re suspicious of uncertainty, of the murky territory of doubt. We want to be coddled in that grid system where everything is numbered and ordered, where we know exactly where we stand at all times. I say, try the High Line. There’s a freedom in losing your bearings.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?