Sunday, February 19, 2017

Out of Our Minds



In 1973, I learned how to read. I was in kindergarten, and at the end of a certain school day the teacher said something about reading. What I swore I heard her say was that we HAD to know how to read by TOMORROW. With all the panic and illusory certainty of a five-year-old I went home and tearfully insisted I HAD TO LEARN HOW TO READ. I cried so hard and tried so hard. I was young and thought it entirely reasonable to be asked to learn to read overnight. Maybe I was born with my mouth wide open for small trickle-drops of approval. Maybe it was shamed into me. Maybe I was guided by some invisible and overwhelming drive. But I pushed through and learned how to read, and went back to school proud, and also shocked when my teacher laughed and said, "oh, you didn't have to learn LAST night. That isn't what I meant."
I picked up on two things that day: that there was a piece of me ashamed to know too much, and a piece ashamed to not know enough. Those parts of me went back and forth for a long time. "Not enough" memorized the names of the first 100 Kentucky Derby winners. "Too much" barely skirted through algebra. "Not enough" took every vocabulary quiz in the dictionary set that came with our World Book Encyclopedia set. "Too much" blew off countless homework assignments in high school.
As I was carrying on my inner competition, an outer competition in the world was happening. I picked up on the fact that you would get social goodies based on what you knew or didn't know. I played dumb with boys. I learned useless facts, like did you know a postage stamp has ten calories? I wasn't very interested in that or invested in good grades. I was distracted by art and music. There was always more to know and always more I didn't know. Instead of taking delight in learning more, at some point I grew tired in my head of always this competition...this meaningless pitting of facts I have, facts I don't have, with facts I should have and things I should understand.
Understanding. That world of my youth seems so far away now. I wanted to please, and pleasing others meant the acquisition of facts and being able to spit out those facts. I know now there is a name for this: materialism. I now know the world as a place where you can be rewarded more for what you know than for WHO YOU ARE. When speaking about our children in school, often grades are the first thing we talk about. Accomplishments. These kinds of proclamations can range from subtle comparison  to all-out, unapologetic, "my kid's better than yours."
I'm not saying don't be a proud parent, I'm simply noticing that our culture values things of an intellectual nature above things of the heart, and this is a form of materialism.  It can set up a superficial knowing without having a heart-felt will to do something good in the world. We have all these facts we can spout off, studies we can quote, facts we proudly know and use in our jobs. Facts mean nothing unless we are constantly questioning the structure within which they are employed. Facts in the mind of a disordered person can be presented just the same as facts from a non-disordered person.
Having  an emphasis on intellect without having to contextualize or live any knowledge is dangerous. For instance, whole churches have been duped by ministers of God who bring a beautiful and flawlessly philosophized message, then go do the opposite of the message they brought. Or psychologists who know all the correct terms for diagnosis, who can spot projection a mile away, but who constantly project in their own relationships and have no self-knowledge. We all know someone who does not practice what they preach, who is inconsistent with the image they present.We also know people who are said to be "in their head". These, ironically, are not the first people you'd go to for a new idea. Or that you'd tell you had a terminal illness. They just don't "do" imagination or empathy.

I would tell my five-year-old, my teenage selves now: it didn't matter what facts you had. It mattered what truth was in your heart.

Before the election, facts started to become more important with "fake news" and avid fact checking amidst the lies. We always want to do the right thing and find enough evidence so others join us in this right thing. We often forget that we, as well as others, are driven by more than intellect. In kindergarten, I was driven. Intensely driven. I wanted so badly to please my teacher, my  parents, and my aunt by reading. I had misheard...misunderstood...got it wrong with the teacher. I was five, and luckily this was reading and only good came out of it. But I could have had a much easier time getting there, and I see adults as having this same impulse and mistaken drive. It would have been just as easy to be driven toward the wrong thing. It wasn't about having something: reading. It was about an impulse to ultimately belong and please. I was a slave to the drive so I could be rewarded with approval.  The knowledge comes through feeling experiences. We learn best through engagement, and that takes going on a deeply curious path of what drives us. What is in our hearts? We know the chatter of our heads all too well. But what cares have we for this world? Where can we make it better?
Are we good people?
We can be creative, free thinkers when we take our hearts, and also our hands, into account. Our feelings and self-awareness lead us to awakenings we never knew existed. It is a wide-open field of ideas. Without our hearts, we have no imagination of how to contextualize and what to do with facts. Having our hearts deepens and humbles us.

In singing, there is the concept of a blend. It means you are able to move from your throatier, more robust chest voice into your higher, lighter, free-er head voice with the ability to impart a nice tone that allows little distinction between your head and chest voice. I read this article about our ability to move between empathy and logic and it has always fascinated me. Just as you cannot sing in your head voice and chest voice at the same time, you cannot employ empathy and logic at the same time. There are real neural constraints. But some people get stuck in their heads. New ideas, creativity, and cannot flourish in the robotic, "logical" world of facts. Creativity always has regard for that which is shared humanity, and the factual is not our shared humanity. Our stories of grace, struggle, and making meaning are what make us human.

We cannot change anything unless we engage our hearts. Our minds create tracks of assumptions and we wear those tracks deep into the earth. Being stuck in assumptive ruts, with people, with concepts, with words, means we are not being touched. We think we know but we don't. Logic does not stand on its own and takes us far from our heart, our spirits, our creativity.
Which is why art is so important. The call of art is to move seamlessly between logic and empathy, to blend our heads and hearts without anyone detecting a timbre change. Neuroplasticity can overcome neural constraints. The practice of decompartmentalizing logic and empathy, thinking creatively and with heart, can deepen our collective wisdom.

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