(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.
(ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I forsee the effects that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.
The only possible inference from these two facts is that I—I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt ‘I’—am the person, if any who controls the ‘motion of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature.
—Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life?
The universe is polymorphous and multifluous. The idea that god or divinity should be mono- is . . . . insufficient? constraining? disappointing? perverse? inadequate? claustrophobic? unimaginative? simplistic? incomplete?
There are lots of possible words to finish this sentence. And that’s only in English.
Farmers can be good entrepreneurs. Farmers are used to investing a large amount of time, money and labor now for an uncertain payoff in the future. In contrast, kids who grow up in school want structure, predictable rewards and guaranteed income. They don’t want to take chances, and resent the idea of working for free. And learning to think in terms of paper- and screen-bound concepts and abstractions can kill the kind of concrete, creative intelligence that they can learn on the farm, and which can be so useful in setting up a small business.
Yeah, I’m overgeneralizing. But I look at the kids now in rural Thailand who have at least 7 or 8 years of schooling (as compared to their parents, who mostly have 0-4 years of school). and it is hard to get them to open a market stall, plant a vegetable garden, or even take a chance on a bus ticket into Bangkok without a job waiting. They’ll only invest in a machine like a chain saw or electric sander if they are sure it will get them a job with daily pay. After several years of required schooling, they are really good for nothing. They have been taken off the farm, so they no longer like farm work or can even do it very well. They are wary of risks. But after several years of lousy rural schooling, they haven’t learned enough to get a good job in town or a government job. They are just good for construction or working in the chicken factory.
A couple of times Luna has tried to hire people with high school or even some college to help her with her marketing job (ordering and designing clothes and bags in Thailand to send to her contacts in Italy). It never worked out very well. She complains they are lazy, “They know computer, know math, know English. But they not want to do nothing, not want to learn about job. Just want somebody to give money to them, not want to work.”
Every now and then, a rural family puts some money into educating a child enough to get a low level professional job in the city—secretary or nurse or bookkeeper or something like that. The results are often not satisfactory. The professional kids become obsessed with their city live and careers. They are embarrassed by their rural family, and rarely visit home or send money (except when they need their parents to take care of their kids). To be fair, entry-level professional jobs are often very low-paid, and the kids have to use what little money they earn to maintain appearances with a certain standard of living. But the family back on the farm can still wonder; why is this any better than opening a market stall–or even working construction?
But a government job, or the police is a different story. Nobody will ever second-guess a job like that. Sure the police are corrupt, womanizing bastards, and government workers are arrogant jerks who have to sit in an office all day long. But that kind of guaranteed income, while still being able to live near family and country, and maybe even own land and work the harvest . . . . But these are mostly open to men. Women still have to rely on their own resources.
And in the U.S.? Our system is so geared to preparing us for paper- and screen-bound office hierarchies and salary-work that it is hard to imagine alternatives, other than free-lancing office work that is symbiotic to the corporate hierarchies. It is no coincidence that many of the great tech entrepreneurs and creative entertainers are people who dropped out of school (although, to be fair, only after receiving a decent elementary and high school education). And immigrants are disproportionately represented in small business.
I spent the day trying to vocalize all of my thoughts—just to see how my mind works. And . . .
I became very aware of my endless inane observations.
They were often followed by commentary like, “Jeez, my mind is full of inane crap.”
Which was sometimes followed by commentary like, “Don’t judge it, just watch it.”
Which was sometimes followed by commentary like, “Who’s watching? Don’t watch. Don’t analyze. Just say it.”
At other times I said, “I wouldn’t have had those thoughts about my thoughts if I were not vocalizing my thoughts.”
Or, “I am remembering all my thoughts much more than I would if I were not vocalizing.”
Sometimes I thought I should stop all these metathoughts about my thoughts and vocalizations. I didn’t always vocalize these thoughts.
I liked to read words out loud every time I saw them.
I noticed more smells, textures and colors than usual.
Sometimes when my mind was silent, I tried to think of something to say and only said “Why is it so difficult and tiring to speak all my thoughts?”
Sometimes when my mind was silent, I said something like, “Was that one of those moments between thoughts which the meditators claim are the moments when your true self is present?” Actually, I was more likely to just think that than to say it.
Sometimes the vocalization of the thought lasted too long, and I had already moved on to a new thought while still vocalizing the old one.
Often I spoke the thought out loud only after I had already spoken it to myself in my mind.
Other times the vocalization was my first awareness of the thought.
Some vocalizations, such as “Ouch” and “Fuck!” came with no real thought attached to them, just a sensation.
When I started thinking about something I wanted to tell somebody or planning what I would do later, I started a long internal monologue but usually forgot to vocalize it.
When I made an effort to vocalize such monologues, I lost interest quickly.
I sometimes thought about how I would write this list. I rarely vocalized those thoughts.
Sometimes I laughed and said, “Sheez, my brain is a random mess.”
I wondered, sometimes aloud and sometimes not, what kinds of thought processes were going on that I still wasn’t aware of.
Luna is from rural Thailand, near the Lao and Cambodian borders. She grew up in the 1970s without electricity, without shoes, without motorized vehicles. Money was rare. It was largely a subsistence life, eating what they grew on the farm and what they could forage (such as mushrooms, frogs, land crabs, lizards, snakes, insects and algae) and building shelters out of whatever materials were on hand. Luna spent her days taking care of ducks and buffalos, carrying water and cooking, planting and harvesting rice and vegetables, and hacking down the forests to create new fields. She never attended school (until her early 30s, when she went to hairdressing school, driving school and four weeks of English classes). Buddhist nuns and her grandmother taught her the basics of writing before she was 12. But she didn’t really learn to read and write until her 20s, when she worked security in Bangkok and had nothing else to do during the long nights in building lobbies and parking lots than to practice her handwriting and hope it would get her a pay raise. She learned basic math when she worked as a bus conductor in her teens.
When I go to Luna’s farm, all I see are nice green fields, pretty trees and some animals. When she looks at that same countryside, she sees all the places where things to eat can be found, endless resources to build and repair things, and a landscape that can be endlessly modified to better suit new crops, animals or human needs. With little more than a machete, she can enter (what to me looks like) an empty field and finish the day with a chicken coop. With the help of a couple of family members, they will finish the day with a small farmhouse. She can start with a cotton plant and a few leaves for dye; and after a few days show me a multi-colored textile with elephant patterns. When she tries to explain the loom to me, and the multiple knotted strings used to produce the pattern, I can only shake my head in despair at ever being able to understand the complexity of it all.
I feel like a child when I am in the country with Luna. I am totally dependent, totally ignorant, totally incompetent. I am in awe of her talent and intelligence. She can take home a single example of a handbag that she wants to copy—often a complex bag shaped like an owl or a dolphin—replicate it at home and then design a mass-producing system for her and a friend to create hundreds of them with multiple color patterns. She can watch somebody cook something once or twice—whether in India, China or Italy—and then go home and successfully recreate the dish. She can watch somebody paint a new flower design on to her fingernails, and then next time go home and paint it herself. She built most of her concrete and iron home by herself, just by watching how other people worked. Sometimes she hired people to help her, but as often or not ended up doing it herself because they were so incompetent.
When she comes to New York, however, I learn the limits of her skills. She is eternally lost in the city. She can barely make heads or tails of a map. She is more likely than not to take the subway in the wrong direction, even on routes she has already travelled several times. She can’t make sense of computers and their various parts: the system, the applications, the internet, the browsers, the websites. Indeed, she is flummoxed by most electrical appliances (except cell phones). Every time I teach her, it just slips right out of her memory the next minute and her fingers are fumbling again—much like everything she tries to teach me about plants and crafts.
After a few months in New York together, I catch myself thinking that Luna is a bit stupid, a bit uneducated. I teach her things so many times, things that seem obvious to me, but she just can’t remember or figure it out. She can hold great English conversations in Thailand—indeed she can tell stories better than many native English speakers. But in conversations with my friends in New York she is perplexed and awkward—not only in her language skills, but in her complete misjudgment of the proper flow and tone of a conversation.
Fortunately, I can remember the skills and intelligence that I saw in Thailand and quickly repent of my critical judgments. But I am startled by how different a personality can look in a different context. It makes me realize how different intelligences can be; how much they are dependent on situations.
I’ve read somewhere that learning to read at an early age changes the wiring of our brains. We are trained to relate readily to small objects the size of a word, and can understand their intricate relationships. A childhood of reading also trains us to think in terms of abstractions and generalizations. But it leaves us incompetent to read a natural landscape; to anticipate the activities of plants and animals; or to think in holistic terms of a world made up of complexly interwoven particularities. I can believe it.
I often read scientists claiming that IQ tests are effective measures of intelligence and can predict success in life. They argue that high IQ scores correlate with high incomes and job success. Based on this correlation, some of them pooh-pooh the idea of different kinds of intelligences and insist that IQ=ability. But this correlation between IQ scores and job success is completely tautological. The kinds of abstract, paper & screen-based reasoning that can make one succeed on an IQ test (or the SAT or GRE or LSAT) is precisely the kind of skill that makes one successful in school and in modern white-collar jobs. Being good at these kinds of tests helps you get into better schools, and graduating from a better school often gets you a better job and starting salary. So, of course IQ tests can predict success in American and European society; because American society rewards precisely the kinds of abstract, paper-bound skills that are measured by tests. Skills and intelligence in practical construction, in utilizing landscapes, in material creativity are skills that don’t pay (except for a handful of successful artists and decorators). And people with this kind of intelligence are routinely treated with condescension–both in America and in urban Thailand.
I can’t imagine Luna doing well on one of those standardized tests. She’s never seen one in her life, and wouldn’t know where to start (I’ve filled out visa and customs forms with her–even the basic organization of the sheet seems to perplex her). But I will still defer to her intelligence and wisdom on so many things, both practical and emotional. Every now and then, when she is frustrated about some stupidity on my part, she says “You have school. Why you not understand anything?” The answer is easy. “Because nobody learns anything useful in school.”
To be sure, Luna is a bit exceptional. None of her eight siblings (with the possible exception of a sister who lives in Germany) are as smart and talented as she. Part of the reason is that she was the only one to be raised by her grandmother, who taught her a lot. But maybe it is also because she is the only sibling who did not go to school. All of the others had 3-5 years of school. Even though some of them still can’t sign their names, perhaps those few young years of paper-bound abstraction were still enough to eat away at their native, environmental intelligence.
There is no rebirth without death.
Which means that there is a certain amount of nihilism involved in the process–whether it is just wishful apocalyptic daydreaming or serious steps towards self-transformation. My guess is that putting a bit of extra effort into the death part will make for a more seriously transformative rebirth.
Spending time with my daughter I am constantly reminded of all the ways that families and careers trap us in these obsessive, fearful, defensive, status-obsessed, über-practical, blinded-by-details, self-deceiving cocoons. In attempting to protect and prepare our children for all possibilities, we weave webs of worry and neurosis around ourselves. We entangle our lives so deeply that both we and our children can only live through each other, which only makes us more desperate and thus more driven to live our lives through the other. It is just an endless cycle of preparing kids to live stressful lives so that they may grow up and become even more stressed through the effort of instilling stress into their kids, and so on and on to infinity. Children make any alternatives to those same old lives that everybody else lives unthinkable.
Spending time with my daughter, I also know that she is the most potent emotional charge in my life, the thing that keeps me both grounded and flying high. Her boundless love and affection is an end in itself. I just want nothing more than to return it. I wonder how I can even imagine futures in which there is a possibility that I might not always be there for her. What could be more fulfilling?
Sometime I just spend time with my daughter playing “Clue” or something like that. We have a good time and it is no big deal. She’ll grow up and do her own thing like she should, just like billions of human children before her.