In his column a few days ago, Timothy Egan reminded us of Teddy Roosevelt's view of the wisdom of industrial titans: "You expect a man of millions, the head of a great industry, to be a man worth hearing,” T.R. once said. “But as a rule they don’t know anything outside their own business."
I've long been good at getting good at something. You focus and you work hard and you persist and sometimes "Bingo." Man, that feels good. It goes to your head, though, to mine anyway. Especially if it makes money. There's nothing like being able to buy a woman flowers and champagne every day to make you think you've got it all figured out. All the important stuff, anyway.
But I'm a different person now. I blame it on writing. I'm not making enough money writing to keep my girl in champagne and flowers--she loves me anyway; who knows why--but that's not the worst of it. The big casualty of my writing has been my blissful, self-absorbed ignorance. That and my self image. Not the image I have of myself now, but the image I had of myself then. I thought I was hot stuff. Turns out, T.R. pretty much had me pegged.
I cared about others in those days. I had empathy. What I didn't have was time. I worked hard to be successful, and when I wasn't doing that, I was looking after my family. If something didn't have anything to do with either of those pursuits, I just didn't pay that much attention to it. To give you an idea of how bad it was, I thought Ronald Reagan was an okay president.
When you're in that mode--making something new, inventing yourself--big philosophical issues feel like something you left behind in the college library. They are the mountains that run down to the valley that cradles the stream that carries you along. You are too busy swimming to give them much thought. Too busy to ask yourself where you would be if they weren't there at all. Way too busy to wonder whether without mountains there could even be streams.
I have more time now, and I think about these things. Not just because I have time to. Suddenly, urgently, I want to understand. I want to explore the mountains. I wouldn't even mind a peek over to the other side. Like Timothy Egan, I see the global religious, political and social struggles of the day and I think: It can't be as hopeless as it seems. Surely we aren't doomed endlessly to repeat the same mistakes, fight the same fights, as if no one has made them or fought them before, as if no one has learned anything.
Well, maybe we are.
But even that is interesting to think about. Why that might be. What it means about who we really are. Why can we see the mountains if we are doomed to forget them? What would be the evolutionary point of that? We'd be better off never looking up from the stream. But we do look up. Some of us. Sometimes. The things we learn about ourselves when we do that must be good for something. Why else would we have that capacity?
Perhaps we cannot do and think at the same time. Perhaps we are in a non-multitasking stage of our cognitive development. Do or think. Think or do. Not both at once. Sorry. Come back when Humanbrain 2.0 has been installed.
We are great builders. We are great thinkers. But I fear our two great selves don't spend enough time together. Achievement, meet conscience. You two should talk. I think you'd enjoy one another.