Some thoughts on thinking.
Photo by Calwaen Liew on Unsplash
When did deep thought become such a liability?
In art school, some people would say, "Your work is so cerebral." They said it in a vaguely dismissive and plaintive tone, like, I don't have time for thinking right now. "Cerebral" meant heavy-handed, demanding, and academic. Like when you tell someone, "Oh that's so deep" but you're being sarcastic.
But I don't mind being called cerebral. I mean, if we're never cerebral, then what are we? Without our brains, we cease to be.
Sure, there is a problem with navel-gazing intellectualism. If you spend too much time looking inward, to the intellect, you might become disconnected from people, from the world, and from action. But as long as we can live a balanced life, then at least some of life should be a Life of the Mind. The Mind is a pretty big deal.
Creativity, for me, is driven by thought and learning. It's not driven by aesthetics or prettiness (although those are nice things to have too). Creativity and art are about the big ideas that we all share, like, What does it mean to be human? Alone? Loved? Great?
And I suppose that the reason for the cerebral comment was that these ideas, these Ideas with a capital I, aren't easy. Well shit, what does it mean to human? If we can't ask those questions of each other and of ourselves, then what's the point?
There is an answer. But, I'll have to think about it.
Being a Deep Thinker doesn't have to make you stodgy. After all, Douglas Adams, a pretty Deep Thinker himself, was able to be philosophical and deep and light in a single hilarious voice. When he named his super computer Deep Thought he was poking fun at our human tendency to overthink, to oversimplify, to put everything in a box. But he was, of course, also being philosophical. In other words, being a Deep Thinker.
“O Deep Thought computer...the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us....The Answer."
"The Answer?" said Deep Thought. "The Answer to what?"
"Life!" urged Fook.
"The Universe!" said Lunkwill.
"Everything!" they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment's reflection.
"Tricky," he said finally.
"But can you do it?"
Again, a significant pause.
"Yes," said Deep Thought, "I can do it."
"There is an answer?" said Fook with breathless excitement.
"Yes," said Deep Thought. "Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But, I'll have to think about it."
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The key to deep thoughts, I think, is having the desire to ask big question, but not needing to find big answers. It's that old cliche: It's about the journey , not the destination. To ask a question is to spark a conversation, and, I hope, lead to more questions. I found this great quote from the science fiction writer, Poul Anderson, in Donella H. Meadows' Thinking in Systems:
I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when looked at in the right way, did not become still more complicated.
Poul Anderson, Call Me Joe
To me, that implies that when you look at a problem or idea, you will always find more doors to open. That's sort of why I call this blog Chicken and Egg. It's not that I'm interested in poultry. That would be weird. It's just that I love these little puzzles, these little koans, that are wonderful in their unanswerability. (Of course, they can become answerable if you take them literally. Neil deGrasse Tyson has actually settled the, Which came first, the chicken or the egg? with, "The Egg -- laid by a bird that was not a Chicken. ")
Lisa: Bart, I have a riddle for you. What's the sound of one hand clapping?
Bart: Piece of cake. (claps fingers against palm, making an audible thwap thwap sound)
Lisa: No, Bart. It's a three-thousand-year-old riddle with no answer. It's supposed to clear your mind of conscience thought.
Bart: No answer?? Lisa, listen up. (claps fingers against palm again)
Lisa: Ugh. Let's try another one. If a tree falls in the woods and no one's around, does it make a sound?
Bart: Absolutely! Creeaak. (makes tree falling motion with arm)
Lisa: But Bart, how can sound exist if there's no one there to hear it?
(sound of zen-like pipes)
The Simpsons, Lisa trying to clear Bart's mind, on youtube
I am very much inspired by Maria Popova's Brain Pickings while organizing my thoughts. She describes her site as an "inventory of a meaningful life" and it's a beautiful idea. The idea that by taking stock of the words of others, and our own words, we dig into meaning and life. Wow, that got pretty cerebral. To read ideas, and to draw connections between the ideas through writing, is to deepen understanding, to connect with others, and to make sense of the world in a meaningful way. Writing, in particular, forces you to dig deeper and to question your own assumptions. Writing, like no other act, forces you to organize your thoughts. It brings clarity and exposes complexity. Writing is humbling.
So here we go.