“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
This month’s edition of the The Atlantic Magazine includes a discussion of our ever extending life spans, what we will do with all that extra time and how society will change as a result. It is balanced by an accompanying essay entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75” by Ezekial J. Emanuel. Emanuel’s article is a classic piece of subversive writing: both abhorrent and compelling at the same time. It reminds me a bit of Bill Maher’s commentary. You’re absolutely certain he’s totally, freaking two tacos shy of a combo plate and, suddenly, you hear something that makes you stop and say, “That makes a lot sense.”
It’s enough to make your brain hurt.
Life is a lot easier when we all stick to script and don’t leave the confines of our pigeon holes. Then all we need to get by are knee-jerk heuristics and bumper sticker philosophies. Thinking is then reduced to a mental game of Tetris, a la William James: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Sound familiar? How many Archie Bunkers do you know?
Such mental sclerosis, evidenced by ‘hardening of the categories’, is much more evident in those of us who have been around the block a time or two. But it need not be a terminal condition. The world can be fresh and new again. Zen Buddhism advocates a concept called beginner’s mind, where we put aside our preconceptions and view the world as it is, without all the mental fetters we put upon our observations. This opens up new avenues of knowing. In the words of Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
One of my daily mantras is the reminder that nothing is simple. Once you are absolutely sure of something, you can be absolutely sure you are oversimplifying. Constantly reevaluate your beliefs, listen to alternate viewpoints, read Thinkertoys and try the creativity exercises offered there.
And take heart. After all, in about seventeen years Bill Maher will be seventy five.