Escaping our mental estuaries | The Enterprise
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Escaping our mental estuaries

Posted on November 29, 2021


Ken Ripley

Ken Ripley

This is the time of the year when traditional holiday images start dominating our attention — turkeys last week and now the increasing presence of Christmas decorations and themes, the colored lights shining brightly against the ever-early darkness and chilling cold.

In the annual rotation of the calendar, all this is normal and, considering the year we’ve had, refreshing. A little holiday spirit, a few swallows of holiday cheer and the prospect of holiday feasting and gift-giving all provide a measure of warmth and optimism that makes December stand out in a frenzy of jolly and holly with barely a mention of folly.

I wish I could share all this holiday merriment, and I suppose I will get into at least some of its mood eventually, but another word and its related image — not part of my regular vocabulary — has been running through my mind all day, somewhat insistently, as a metaphor for modern America.


As used by scientists and geographers, estuary is a technical term that has nothing whatsoever to do with culture, politics or discussions of race or generational conflicts. An estuary, as the dictionary defines it, is “the tidal mouth of a large river, where the tide meets the stream.”

Wikipedia amplifies this a bit more usefully when it describes an estuary as “a partially enclosed coastal body of brackish water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the open sea.”

Estuaries, as transition zones between rivers and seas, can be chaotic clashes of fresh water, saltwater and sediment stirred by the tides and waves. The encyclopedia goes on to note, “The mixing of seawater and freshwater provides high levels of nutrients both in the water column and in sediment, making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world.”

Now, don’t you feel enlightened?

I mention this not because I’m feeling scientific and wonky, but because I see America caught in a kind of human estuary of its own, where our politics, religion, cultural and racial identities, history, values and ideals have managed to flow together, like the perfect storm, into a swirling maelstrom of facts and lies, truth and denial, fears and hopes, even love and hate.

It’s not just Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals. It’s just not religious versus secular. It’s not just white versus minorities. It’s not just native-born Americans versus immigrants. It’s not just generation against generation. Each of these conflicts exists on its own, with its own history and ebbs and flows.

What seems different now to me, even as I observe or read article after article outlining each clash in relentless technical detail, is that we’re being bombarded by all these conflicts at once in a perceptual estuary and our heads are exploding as we try to make sense of it all.

A scientific explanation was first coined by communications theorist Walter Lippman in the 1940s. He explained that except for our personal experience, we don’t interact with our environment directly, but with a mental perception of our environment he dubbed the “pseudo-environment,” which is formed by all the outside information we take in — the books we read, the news we watch, the gossip we share with friends, the attitudes we pick up from our elders, everything however trivial or major that shapes our understanding, influences our attitudes and drives our behavior.

This has always been the case throughout human history, but the growing glut of information, magnified many times by the internet, has made sifting truth from fiction, right from wrong, acceptable versus unacceptable, even more incredibly difficult.

It’s made worse by deliberate mistruths by some media outlets, many politicians and a whole lot of crooks with old snake oil to peddle in what are truly brackish digital estuaries.

Forces are at work threatening our democracy and our culture, subject for more discussion, but is it any wonder that we are finding ourselves distrustful and angry with friends and family, disbelieving even the most obvious truths, fearful of the future and clinging to a shifting past?

So what can we do?

What I suggest, at least for the holiday season, is to take a break from our mental estuaries and focus on the basics of community life.

Turn off or limit the national news; ignore the emails, tweets and text messages that demand your attention and your money. Stay on top of local news where you live, but you can’t do anything now about Washington or Raleigh, so let it go, at least for awhile.

What’s truly important will make itself known; most of the rest is unhealthy noise.

Make it a point to enjoy all the holiday festivities you can, as they are available. Drive around our towns and enjoy the Christmas decorations. Spend more time just having fun with friends and family.

Above all, let’s be nice to each other, patient and forgiving. Be kind. We may lots of reasons to differ, but let’s focus this month on all the things we have in common and reaffirm the ties that bind us.

Southern Nash County is a good community, a great place to live.

I was thankful for that last week. Let’s try to clear our heads and hearts this holiday season, escape our mental estuaries and enjoy the genuine blessings of each other.

Ken Ripley, a Spring Hope resident, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.

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