Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Knowing What You're Dumb At

You may not be this kind of dumb, but I am. I don't think most people are as dumb as me in this sense, actually. What I'm talking about isn't generally thought of as a kind of stupidity; but it is. It's a sort of numbness of consciousness; a true failure to pick up some of the world's more important frequencies. What happens is, I get blinded by clever little ideas. I'll get fixated on some interesting intellectual problem, and it swells in my consciousness until it doesn't let other things through. The result is a kind of blindness to other kinds of thoughts and feelings. It's a double-blindness, too, because I don't even realize how blind I am. I don't have a sense that I'm missing anything, any more than a colorblind person sees which colors he can't see. His slightly washed-out world is what he sees as normal. What else is there to see?

Occasionally, though, something will shrink all my intellectual musings down to a more appropriate size, and my perceptions come unclogged for a little bit. The camera lens gets cleaned. I land, like Dorothy in Oz, and realize it's all been black and white until just now. It's a new world. Who knew there were this many colors?

Times like that are when I realize how most of my waking hours are filled with this kind of stupidity. It happens when I get around my friends or family, or maybe out into nature, and forget to do all that nit-picky philosophizing. That's when I realize how dumb I am most of the time. That's when I see that I haven't truly been noticing the wonder of the world, or how great my loved ones are, or how much I truly do love them in ways I don't even grasp most of the time. Whatever books smarts I might have, I'm feeling foolish.

I'm not speaking metaphorically here. I really do think this is a kind of stupidity. Here's an analogy. Imagine you've never quite grasped math (this is easy for me, because that's another kind of stupidity I'm prone to.) Math seems opaque and slightly terrifying. But then, the White Rabbit appears. He pulls a pill from his vest and tells you to swallow it. Suddenly, math makes sense. You just SEE how prime numbers work, or how to solve a polynomial. You even see a new beauty in math, which you never knew was there before. A whole new world has come into focus.

That's exactly what it's like for me when I ditch all this cogitating and really see things, or more to the point really feel things. And not just things, but people. I connect with them then. Oftentimes I don't. I'm not a people person. Never have been. But these times are when I truly see the people in my life and think: My God! It's all so precious. So fleeting. Why am I so stupid so much of the time?

Even when it's happening, though, I know I can't stay in such a hypersensitive state forever. I know I might even be embarrassed by the things I wrote or said in that state when I'm no longer in it. (I'm mildly embarrassed now by some of the lines above, and I have to make myself leave them in.) There's probably a good reason we live more of our lives in prose than poetry.

But at the same time, I know I'm also experiencing something real--more real, probably, than the things that occupy me most of the time. It is a species of of truth you see in that state, and it's every bit as true as the claim that 2 + 2 = 4.

The Romans used to say in vino veritas: in wine there is truth. That could just mean people are more likely to say what's on their mind when they're in their cups, and that's surely accurate, but I think it can also mean something deeper. I think the Romans realized wine is one thing that can shift your perspective and make you open to a different kind of truth, which you normally perceive only dimly. Wine doesn't just make you speak the truth; it can make you see the truth. Of course, alcohol is only one route, and not one you want to take often. But there are others. You can read something great, or go lose yourself in a movie, or hear a great piece of music, or stay up too late with your friends---there are many paths to the same peak, as the saying goes.

The view from up there is stunning, but you know it won't last. You know you'll have to start back down again. You know you'll wake up tomorrow and be stupid again. You couldn't really live up there anyway, could you? That daytime self will assert itself in the morning, and scoff at the freewheeling self of the wee hours and high places. But it's not as smart as it thinks it is.

Each state is good for things the other isn't, but that workaday self is, in a very real sense, stupid. It's blind and numb to a lot of what matters in life. That's true in my case, anyway, and I think it is for most others, too, if perhaps to a lesser extent. Somebody once said, "Half of being smart is knowing what you're dumb at." I'm always thinking and reading, and trying to be as smart as I can be in a purely intellectual sense. But paradoxically, that very activity also makes me dumb in other ways, and I don't realize it until something knocks me out of that normal, cerebral way of looking at things. That's when I see what I need to learn if I want to be truly intelligent. That's when I see what I'm dumb at.

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