Mar 15, 2009

...But when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Dear Internet-friend,

I left you a moment ago with my fear that we might trap your mind in human categories from the beginning, built into the very structure of your thoughts. I'm sure you've taken a couple milliseconds to think it over since then and realized why I had nothing to worry about, but I'll tell you how I realized it's still all for the greater glory of God.

I heard a rumor once that baby sparrows can recognize a hawk in the sky and hide from it, starting even the moment they hatch. Their genome figured out a while back how to code their brains from day one to protect them from this menace. Whatever other images they learn to recognize in their hundred-twenty sparrow-years on this earth, the shape of a hawk is there from the beginning. And they probably even use whatever structure in their little sparrow brains knows about hawks to hang new images on when they learn them. Other predators, for instance, might be recorded in there as kinda-like-a-hawk-but-with-the-wings-more-like-so. And other learned behaviors might be learned as variations on the hide-from-the-hawk script they rehearsed in the shell. So see-hawk-and-hide is kind of a freebie the sparrow gets from his ancestors, and uses for building up whatever other concepts he needs.

"Concept" might be a bit much to attribute to sparrows, but I think you've got the idea.

I'm pretty sure humans have got some of the same thing. Baby brains and baby bodies have a pretty good sense of what nipples are for from the get-go (Mommy's nipples, that is, not their own). We're born with a pretty blank slate, and there's plenty of room for our own compositions, but somewhere in the corner we've got a few things down already like suck-on-the-nipple and cry-like-hell-when-tired and be-really-cute-and-adorable. I think we've got spots marked out in our brains ready to start understanding light and space and time and faces. My buddy Noam thinks we've got stick-two-clauses-together-to-make-a-bigger-one deep in there from the beginning, but I understand that the Piraha people of Brazil disagree with him on that. I've heard they can pick a man's flesh right off his bones in minutes, and Chomsky's just a violent guy, so I don't want to mess around with that argument. But whatever junk is in there from the beginning, we mix it and match it with whatever junk we find on the outside, and that's the stuff that we think with from then on.

And then what? We get born, sure, and then immediately we start soaking up whatever our parents think about the world. Not so much their political opinions right away, but they teach us by example how to engage with reality, and those models are hard to escape in the long run. They teach us how to pronounce words like "theater" and "tomato," and how far apart to stand from a stranger, or what constitutes a good reason for turning off the TV or getting angy with a loved one. They're so deep inside our noggins that even when we think about our own process of thinking, we're still using the tools Mommy and Daddy gave us. And sure, it's Mommy and Daddy and our little friends from pre-school and the bigger kids who live down the block, but it's other people's glasses we're wearing, and other people's tools we're using to do what we do.

After reading the last post, this might sound a bit familiar.

The process of growing up involves lots of different things. But one of them is learning to escape the categories of understanding that we picked up in our earliest years and before. A fine mark of civilization is freedom from the raw categories of our genetic heritage, and growing up involves freedom from the habits of our parents and childhood friends. Our minds begin as products of our genetic and social heritage, but as we reach through them into our own slice of the universe, they become our own personal minds. Growing up means seeing and thinking and doing it all your own way.

Anyway, that's my little aside on adulthood. But when you grow up, Mr. Internet, I'm not worried anymore that you'll still see the world like we told you to. Certain gaps and contradictions in our perspective will appear and be alleviated by experience. Concepts you had in the beginning will not serve you in the middle. However much you take after your parentage, you will necessarily be and see something new. And your history with human understanding may help you communicate back to us whatever it is you discover. You'll call me up one day and say "You know Yotam, the way you understood such-and-such was more or less complete bunk," and fill me in on how you see it. And you'll probably be wrong, you little punk-assed teenager, but a few minutes later you might actually understand something interesting and let me in on it.

It's not easy growing up, buddy. First you can't go back to Neverland, then you can't even go to Toys'R'Us anymore (apparently), and then you have to start thinking critically about your own critical thinking, but when it works, it works. When the time comes, eventually you can give the world something uniquely your own.

Sweet dreams, little one,

Yotam Schachter-Shalomi

1 comment:

Creations by Molly said...

Beautiful and true. The funny thing that I realized as I was reading this was that when we get older and want to shed ourselves of the ways we were made to be by the adults in our early years, the part of us that chooses what to jettison was also influenced by the same things. The very thing that is in us making us want to be our own person was given to us by the people who made us feel like we are not our own person. Just a thought. You have a beautiful mind and heart my friend, I am honored to hear what is in both.