When This Is, That Is

Exploring the world of conditionality

Perception, Deception, and Wandering to the Woods

My mother sewed a lot, until into her 50’s when arthritis in her hands made it difficult for her to cut fabric. She’d tried electric sheers, but they were unsatisfactory.

In my early childhood, before I started school, I remember her sitting at her Kenmore machine, giving the flywheel a start with the palm of her right hand and keeping it humming along with her right knee pressed against the lever protruding below the cabinet.

We had a Crosley portable radio with two big dials: an alarm clock on the left and the radio dial on the right. A knob beneath each dial controlled the volume and the tuner. It was blue. Usually it was in the kitchen, but my mom would place the radio on the floor beneath the drop-leaf surface of the sewing machine while she worked. Sometimes I’d lay on the floor, propped on my elbows, staring with curiosity as the rhythmic chchchch of the machine accompanied whatever was playing on the radio. The only thing I can remember coming from that radio, though, was Arthur Godfrey saying, “How wah ya, how wah ya, how wah ya?”

Once, while I was playing in another part of the house, I heard my mother cry out in pain. I ran to where she sat at her machine and saw the little mound of blood well up from the center of her fingernail. I don’t remember what happened next, nor do I know how far, if not all the way through, the needle went. All I can retrieve from my memory is that little spot of blood.

It was 1955, and I was four years old. Near our house was what I thought of as “the woods.” For all I know, it could have been just a small patch of scrawny trees.

One day as I passed by the sewing room, my mother hunched over her project, I called out, telling her I was going to go to the woods. Over the chunk of the sewing machine she called back, “Okay.” So off I went. Sometime later (whether two minutes or 20), satisfied with my adventure, I strolled back to the house where my frantic mother, both relieved and angry, shouted, “How dare you leave this house without telling me where you’re going! I’ve been calling and calling for you!”

“But you told me I could play in the woods,” I said.

“I most certainly did not.”

“But I heard you. You said it was okay.”

She was unmoved. “Don’t you lie to me, Paul Edward!”

I was crushed and confused. Could I have been wrong? After all, her back was to me. Had she not heard me over the machine? Had she thought I’d said something else? Did I imagine she said it was okay only because I wanted her to? Did I not really call out as loudly as I’d thought, knowing if she were to hear me she certainly would have said no? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I do know this: I have heard my mother’s voice, deep in my mind, dozens of times throughout my life. Each time she calls just my name, just once: “Paul.” It’s not an angry or frantic cry, as it must have been when she discovered me missing. Rather, it’s as though she were calling me into the kitchen for a bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Her voice, clear and crisp.

My father would describe this sort of thing as “your mind playing tricks on you.” I heard that phrase a lot growing up. Maybe it was about a sinister shadow in the corner or the creaks of the house settling in for the night sounding as though someone were creeping right outside my bedroom door.

These little tricks keep me busy all day long as I spontaneously navigate through millions of perceptions—what I hear, see, touch, smell, taste, and think—each day, every day. What a challenge. Without perception neither I nor you could function. Most perceptions are correct and accurate enough interpretations of our surroundings to guide along without difficulty. Some perceptions are inaccurate and, I suspect, most misperceptions go unnoticed because they have no immediate impact. Sometimes, though, misperceptions will lead to bad decisions, petty arguments, embarrassing moments, collisions, missed appointments, unhappy marriages, disastrous political consequences, and war.

Errors in perception have great potential for disaster because with every perception comes the potential for deception. Every one of them. My wandering away from home one day in 1955—based on a simple misperception in my oh-so-young mind—could have ended differently.

On the Spectrum of Ignorance and Wisdom

 

“Spectrum” initially referred to the range of colors displayed as a continuum when white light disperses through a prism. Today we use the word to describe any continuum on which a condition, person, or group might fall. Political spectrum is a good example. The phrase “on the spectrum” applies to people with a variety of social disorders, usually lumped together as some form of autism.

Just about anything displaying subtle gradations can be placed on a spectrum line. Some, like your intelligence quotient, is quantified by IQ points based on testing. Others are not so easy to pin down. What I have in mind is the spectrum of ignorance to wisdom.

This is tricky territory for the same reason we don’t, in polite company anyway, make judgements about a person’s IQ—which we aren’t likely to know—and how smart they are. Another reason it’s tricky is that words like ignorance and wisdom will mean different things to different people and under different circumstances.

Merriam-Webster defines wisdom as: “knowledge that is gained by having many experiences in life; the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand; knowledge of what is proper or reasonable; good sense or judgment.”

The same source defines ignorance as: “a lack of knowledge, understanding, or education; the state of being ignorant.”

In other words, ignorance is the lack of wisdom.

People with low IQs or an overall lack of wisdom don’t generally brag about such things (which they may not even be aware of). Some people, though, do like to brag about their high IQs and how smart—and wise—they are.

Braggarts aside, the qualities of stupid and smart, and ignorance and wisdom are more often attributed to us by others—sometimes correctly, sometimes not. Such judgements, right or wrong, depend on those judges’ own placement on the ignorance-wisdom spectrum.

The dictionary definition of wisdom is useful only on a superficial level, because it gives no insights into vague ideas of what’s “proper or reasonable,” or of “good sense or judgment.” Each day, people gain another day’s worth of experience. That incremental gain doesn’t necessarily add to one’s wisdom. As for “the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand,” well, it may sound mystical and shamanistic, but the relatively few people who understand quantum mechanics or string theory aren’t necessarily wise.

So how to know wisdom? To get a better gasp of what wisdom means let’s take a look into some qualities showing in wise people.

  • Wise people carry intentions of harmlessness. They consider their future actions in terms of the benefit they will have for others, avoiding harmful actions. They reflect on past actions, also in terms of benefit and harm to others, then adjust accordingly.
  • Wise people carry intentions of good will. They speak well of others, avoiding gossip and derogatory speech. They are truthful. Their tone is pleasant and harmonious instead of harsh and divisive. They say things that are meaningful instead of chattering on without purpose.
  •  Wise people have an understanding of the connectedness of things and instinctively see how changes in one area or circumstance may have profound effects on seemingly unrelated areas or circumstances. They understand the nature of cause and effect on levels deeper than the mundane.
  • Wise people are generous, because they understand the grip of need. They are virtuous, because they understand the heavy boot of dishonest and dishonorable people. They don’t take what doesn’t belong to them, because they understand the pain of loss.

I doubt this covers everything, but it’s a start at painting a picture of wisdom. Wisdom has more to do with understanding the nature of the human condition and responding in a positive way. Those who understand the nature of the human condition and respond in a negative way—taking unfair advantage of others, for example—are, at best, sociopaths. At worst, they are psychopaths.

Wisdom has little or nothing to do with general knowledge and IQ. Knowledgeable and intelligent people can be short on wisdom. Uneducated and low-IQ people can be wise.

Giving attention to your inner world as well as the outer world, with the intentions of harmlessness and good will, is the means for cultivating wisdom. Like a well-tended garden, wisdom can grow. The more wisdom grows, the further away from ignorance you travel along the spectrum. And that’s good for you and good for the world. The world is sorely in need of wise people. All people are sorely in need of wise leaders.

A Peculiar Kind of Thanksgiving

During one of the 2016 Republican primary debates, Sen. Marco Rubio said, “I thank God that George W. Bush was president on 9/11.” He was implying, of course, that a President Al Gore would not have handled things so well as Bush did during the aftermath.

In a sense, though, Rubio was thanking God for two protracted wars and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people; thanking God for the billions of dollars wasted on those wars; thanking God for destabilizing the Middle East and opening the way for ISIS; thanking God for yet another generation of broken soldiers and broken families, some of whom live in broken cars and under broken bridges. There is more, of course, but that’s the picture.

Knowing now the consequences of the 2000 election—an election predicated and fueled by intense hatred of Bill Clinton and, by extension, Al Gore—would your vote then have been different? Could anyone who voted for Gorge W. Bush honestly say, “Well, so what? It would have been much, much worse with Gore as president.” Worse how? I ask.

Surely there was a lot of God-thanking when the Electoral College tipped in favor of Donald Trump, giving him the presidency despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. Never mind that we have set ourselves up for potential consequences more terrible than those brought on by George Bush.

Some of us Americans are comfortable with the prospect of living under an authoritarian, white-nationalist regime. I can imagine how grateful they are for the opportunity. Others of us are not so enamored of the idea.

But who knows? There could be reason for optimism. Take one example: Maybe under Trump the middle class will rise to its former glory days. Maybe all those shuttered factories in the rust belt will spontaneously rev to life. Workers (non-union, of course) will enjoy a wage high enough that families can once again be single-earner households. Dad will truck off to the plant while mom cooks a nice hot breakfast for the kids before she drives them to their excellent charter school. Wouldn’t that be great?

Today, we can only predict how a Trump presidency will play out. But the anomaly that was the past campaign and election doesn’t bode well for the country and the world, let alone for those who championed him.

Yet someday, no matter how bad things get over the next four years, someone undoubtedly will “thank God” that Donald Trump was president. Because under Hillary Clinton, just like under Al Gore, things would have been so much, much, much worse. For the believers, it could not be otherwise.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

(For the record, I supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, but voted for Clinton in opposition to Trump. I would have preferred another Democratic candidate. Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency and her close association with Wall Street were off-putting for me. However, she has suffered years of assault by the right-wing propaganda machine, and I don’t think she deserves the reputation the right has assigned to her.)

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