When This Is, That Is

Exploring the world of conditionality

Thinking Within the Shadows

Philly Thinker

Sometimes I’ll push away from my desk, rise to my feet, and take step a or two only to pause as though I’d forgotten where I’m headed. The older I get the truer it is I’ve forgotten my immediate intention. But most of the time when I pause in mid step it’s something else. If Robin’s in the room she may say something like: “There you go,… thinking again.” Yes, there I go again. Thinking. In my world, windows are for introspection as much as to allow me to see what the neighbors are up to.

I am easily distracted by my own thoughts. I’m like a thought hobo, hopping on a train and musing my way through a wilderness of ideas. These particular bouts of thoughtfulness aren’t the common wandering mind, or day-dreamy fantasies, or imaginary intrigues, perhaps of the kind a novelist would have while conjuring plots and characters. Rather, I’m likely trying to make sense of some vague philosophical question or even how I might develop an idea into an essay like this one. 

That’s why, while rummaging around the Internet looking for something to read one day, I was stricken with curiosity with the discovery of the essay “Thinking as a Hobby,” by William Golding (sorry, can’t remember where I found it). Golding is the author Lord of the Flies, the classic survival tale of group of British schoolboys shipwrecked on an island.

Golding’s essay begins with himself as a young schoolboy, standing in front of his headmaster, in trouble again. And once again the headmaster is demanding that he think! 

Central to Golding’s story are three statuettes kept on a shelf above the headmaster’s desk: The Venus de Milo, a leopard ready to spring, and Rodin’s The Thinker. The headmaster uses them, as needed, to drive home a point. In this case he says to the bewildered Golding as he plunks The Thinker on his desk, “That’s what a man looks like when he’s really thinking!” 

Golding admits that he wasn’t, at first, much of a thinker. “Clearly there was something missing in me,” he writes. “Nature had endowed the rest of the human race with a sixth sense and left me out.”

I know the feeling. 

But gradually, as he observes the people around him, Golding realizes the way they think drives their behavior. He derives from his observations three grades of thinking, with grade three being the lowest and most common and grade one the highest. 

He illustrates the difference between a grade-two thinker and a grade-three thinker with a story about himself and a potential girlfriend, Ruth, both now fourteen. In a discussion about religion, Ruth, a Methodist, claims the King James Bible is “literally inspired.” Golding counters that the Catholics, who use the St. Jerome Vulgate version, also claim their Bible literally inspired. Well, Ruth argues, there are so many Methodists who can’t be wrong, surely “…not all those millions?” To which Golding responds:

That was too easy, said I restively…since there were more Roman Catholics than Methodists anyway; and they couldn’t be wrong, could they—not all those hundreds of millions? An awful flicker of doubt appeared in her eyes. I slid my arm around her waist and murmured breathlessly that if we were counting heads, the Buddhists were the boys for my money.

Ruth, the obviously grade-three thinker, “fled.”

Grade-three thinkers don’t rely so much on logic or reason to form opinions and make decisions. Instead, as Golding states, they feel rather than think.

Grade-two thinkers, however, are able to see the contradictions within grade-three thinking. Heartless grade-two thinkers—as Golding himself demonstrates—can easily exploit and demean grade-three thinkers.

I have a tendency to compare myself with others, usually unfavorably, and as I read through this essay I wondered how I rated within Golding’s hierarchy of thinking. Surely, were I grade-three thinker, the essay wouldn’t have appealed to me in the first place. And, if it did appeal to me, I wouldn’t have gotten too far into it before I recognized myself as a “Ruth” and dismissed it as garbage. But I did recognize myself as the grade-two Golding. I see inconsistencies, contradictions, and ironies in many things—sometimes even in my own thinking. And I confess also to having the ability to cut sharp and quick—sometimes without thinking first of the consequences.

Of course, Golding does not devise three grades of thinking only to stop at grade two. As he tells it, he tires of thinking as a hobby and goes on to be a professional grade-one thinker. But, reading the essay, I am looking for clues that suggest I, too, am a grade-one thinker. But then I read:

Grade-two thinking, though it filled life with fun and excitement, did not make for content. To find out the deficiencies of our elders bolsters the young ego but does not make for personal security. I found that grade two was not only the power to point out contradictions. It took the swimmer some distance from the shore and left him there, out of his depth.

The emphasis is mine. I took that sentence personally. So often it happens: I have a great idea and begin to develop it. But suddenly it seems as though I have no idea of where I’m going with it or what I’m to do with it, as though I’m floundering out of my depth. I was consoled, however, by the distinction Golding draws between grade-two and grade-one thinkers. Grade-two thinkers will end a conversation with a rhetorical “What is truth?” For a grade-one thinker, however, the question is the beginning of a conversation. I recognized the instinct and felt enough ease to continue.

Although Golding, while studying at Oxford, describes a chance encounter with “Professor Einstein” (an exemplary grade-one thinker), he does not give an obvious example of grade-one thinking. Rather, I should say, the example he does give wasn’t obvious to me at first. Only after thinking it through did I realize the importance of the three statuettes. He brings them into the story three times. I mention the first above. Then, while doing some cleaning outside of the headmaster’s office, he takes advantage of the headmaster’s absence and rearranges them in a way that is meaningful to him at the moment. But, later in life he gains a different view. He writes:

 If I were to go back to the headmaster’s study and find the dusty statuettes still there, I would arrange them differently. I would dust Venus and put her aside, for I have come to love her and know her for the fair thing she is. But I would put the Thinker, sunk in his desperate thought, where there were shadows before him—and at his back, I would put the leopard, crouched and ready to spring.

Grade-one thinkers are curious, always looking into the shadows for what can be discovered there. But it’s more than that. For for a grade-one thinker it is imperative to explore what hides in the shadows. Life depends on it.

Deceived by Perception—Again

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By Robert Fludd, via Wikimedia Commons

The other day Robin said something to me—can’t remember what—but I took offense and let her know it. She said, “That’s just a story your telling yourself. It has nothing to do with me or what I think.” I had perceived—again—a meaning that wasn’t there.

Perception is a mental process that occurs when external objects come in contact with one of the five senses. Part of the process involves feelings—which are positive, negative, or neutral—and making judgements based on those feelings. Judgments then decide what we do next.

Perceptions are what guide us through our lives, helping us to secure safety and comfort. The way we perceive things—and make judgements about our perceptions—is based on experience. Lots of input from the past influences how we interpret sense-data and act in the present.

Perception works on a primal level during every moment of consciousness but usually happens without our being conscious of it.

The classic example of how this works shows a person alone in the wilderness. He hears a rustle in the bushes and in an instant recognizes the threat and grabs his spear a split second before the tiger leaps. A chain of physiological events happen almost instantly and simultaneously to make survival possible, all because of perception.

But what if… Many things besides a tiger can cause a rustle in the bushes—a breeze, a mouse, a friend approaching. Our wilderness dweller could be deceived by perception and get worked up over nothing. Still, he’d be alive.

But what if… The wilderness dweller misperceives the threat as the rustle of a breeze and does not grab the spear. Deception in reverse can be deadly.

Most of us don’t have to worry about tigers, but there are other threats that we do have worry about. Perceiving threats correctly, and acting accordingly, ensures our survival. And, if we were alone in the world, even if we misperceive a threat, no harm done.

But we are not alone in the world. Interactions with other people give rise to thousands of perceptions every day. And that gives us thousands of chances to be deceived by our own perceptions and make judgements about their meaning and what to do about them. Misperceiving a threat from someone when there is none can in turn create unpleasant—if not dangerous—situations.

If someone bangs on your door in the middle of the night, chances are good your perception of danger is real and necessitates decisive action. But in casual interactions, it’s usually a good idea to check perceptions against reality before making hasty judgements and taking unwarranted action.

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