Archive for the ‘Getting Smarter’ Category


By Ruth Minshull

    I’ve been reading a marvelous book entitled This will Make You Smarter” edited by John Brockman.  I haven’t finished the book, so I can’t say whether or not the title will fulfill its promise for me, but I’m quite sure Einstein would not feel threatened.

Still, I have encountered some provocative new ideas, reaffirmed some of my own convictions, and have found no major points of disagreement.  Most of all, many of the articles have helped launch me into new avenues of thinking.

The book is a compilation of essays by some of the most influential thinkers and researchers of our time.  They are responding to the question:  “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

One author, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, Sean Carroll, wrote an essay entitled “The Pointless Universe” which I found particularly engaging.

“Human beings like to insist that there are reasons why things happen.  The death of a child, the crash of an airplane, or a random shooting must be explained in terms of a hidden plan.  When Pat Robinson suggested that Hurricane Katrina was caused in part by God’s anger at America’s failing morals, he was attempting to provide an explanatory context for a seemingly inexplicable event.

“Nature teaches us otherwise.  Things happen because the laws of nature say they will—because they are the consequences of the state of the universe and the path of its evolution.  Life on Earth doesn’t arise in fulfillment of a grand scheme but as a by-product of the increase of entropy in an environment very far from equilibrium.

“The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules, it’s up to us to make sense of it and give it value.”

I recognized the truth in his statements.  We do like to explain away the bad things that happen to us and others.  We say:  “It is God’s will,” “It was meant to be,” or “It’s karma.”  There’s something in our nature that longs to find an explanation, a pattern, and especially, a predictability.

We are reluctant to accept the fact that no one is in charge.  The universe is simply steaming ahead under its own power and random happenings are truly random.  But this scientist (among others) maintains that such is the case.

Upon reading this, my first question was, But what about karma?  Are you certain that there is no such thing?

This concept has been embraced by Hinduism and Buddhism for countless centuries.  Basically, it simply means:  If we do good, good things happen to us.  If we are evil, then bad things happen to us.  Furthermore the belief is that a person’s karma is carried from one lifetime to the next.  This gives religions a compelling argument for good behavior, lest one’s bad karma goes with him into his next life and gets him born into the grungy back alleys of Calcutta.

Personally, I hated giving up my own belief in karma, mostly because I once knew a woman who was so evil that I felt certain (and hopeful) that she would come back in her next lifetime as a dung beetle.

Many Western cultures embrace similar concepts.  We often hear people say, “What goes around comes around,” or “What we sow we shall reap.”  Some express it as simply “The Law of Cause and Effect.”

If the scientists are right, there really is no great all-seeing, all-knowing Rhadamanthine being sitting in judgment on our actions and ready to mete out suitable punishment as needed.

So, why is it that we so often get zapped when we have misbehaved?  And why does owning up to our wrongs help us dissolve the guilt and make us well again?

I think it is because we are basically decent people; we want to do the right thing, and we feel horrible when we fail (excepting the psychopaths who have no feeling, no remorse, no conscience.  They’re wired differently than the rest of us.  Fortunately they constitute only 4% of our society.)

The rest of us, when we feel guilty, become our own judges, juries and executioners.

When we suffer, we are punishing ourselves for our misdeeds.  In some cases, we may feel that we don’t deserve to “get over it”, to be happy or light-hearted.

Have you ever noticed two (or more) people who may have the same bad experience—an accident, a natural disaster, a serious illness—but they respond in vastly different ways?  One person may suffer shock and painful emotions at first, but will recover and carry on.  Another person will stay hung up, perhaps for years, continuing to moan and grumble about how terrible life has treated him or her.

The difference depends on how at fault each person feels.  In some cases, the person may feel remorse at an unconscious level, but can’t own up to it.  Those are the ones who suffer the most.  Their guilt is a sliver under the skin that can’t be seen and removed.

I once knew a neighborhood couple who seemed to have a miserable marriage.  The wife nagged and criticized her husband relentlessly.  She made him the brunt of jokes and ridiculed him publicly.  He took this treatment without complaint, seldom voicing an opinion or asserting himself in any way.  When I learned that he had died unexpectedly I thought, Well, maybe this will make her happy.  She’s rid of him now.

But that was not the case.  She was overwhelmed with grief, and remained inconsolable.  Several years later she was still visiting his grave every week and getting teary-eyed when his name was mentioned.  I think that at some level (way below her awareness) she felt guilty about the way she had treated him.  Since she was unable to unburden herself of guilt, she continued to grieve for the rest of her life.

We all have upsetting experiences.  We lose loved ones, friends, pets.  We suffer disappointments and setbacks.  We lose jobs, we experience financial reversals.  We endure illnesses, injuries, accidents.  That’s what life is:  ups and downs.

But we have choices.  We can decide how to respond to everything that happens.  We can sit around mewling “Why me?” or we can take responsibility for any part of the problem that we may have caused, then use the experience to grow stronger and wiser.  Every experience can help us carve out a better future for ourselves.

That’s one way to be happier.

And smarter.

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© 2012 by Ruth Minshull


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