Recovering Your Mind and Soul

Let’s face it. We Americans can be so careful when we buy a house or a car. We want to know the exact effect on our bank accounts, now and during the entire period we own it. We want to know if it will keep us safe during fires or accidents or attempted burglaries. We want to know if we can trust the salesman and the insurance agent, the banker and any engineers or mechanics who check it out.

We also recognize the need to keep our hearts and lungs and livers in good shape though many make only half-hearted efforts to eat right, moderate their drinking, and get the appropriate exercise for their situation.

On the other hand, we aren’t all that concerned when we purchase something that might change our lives, having perhaps a dramatic effect on the development or state of minds and souls, perhaps having a still more dramatic effect on the development or state of the minds and souls of youngsters growing up in our houses. We buy televisions that gobble up living-room space, as well as our visual fields…

That’s dangerous. We have monkey brains. That is, our visual systems are so important to our survival, finding food and reproductive opportunities and so forth, that a re-focusing human visual system will pretty much shut down thought. Our brains don’t have enough resources to power our prefontal lobes and our re-focusing visual systems at the same time.

Moreover, our brains are physical systems of the sort which need to be constantly exercised or else decay begins. In this, our brains are no different from our hearts and lungs and thigh muscles.

So… How are we to restore robustness to minds decayed after decades of such stuff as All in the Family, MASH, Rosanne, Friends, and The Jerry Seinfeld Show. Having separated myself from the mainstream of American culture some short time after MASH went off the air the first time, I’m stretching back in time but I have vague memories of what I did.

At first, I floundered about a lot. I tried to read professional-level mathematics books and journals, as if it were possible or wise to make up for my laziness and lack of mental discipline during my school-years. I still do read some mathematics books, but mostly reviews (such as Clifford Pickover’s “Keys to Infinity”), serious books but written for the non-specialist.

Then something led me to the Bible, well — Someone led me to the Bible. I had an intellectual hunger, a spiritual hunger, and a quiet stubbornness allied with a stunted but living sense of self-respect — I wasn’t going to let the television networks and theme-park operators brainwash me into thinking their products were enjoyable.

Around 1988 or so, when I first returned to practice of Christianity — at an Campbellite church in Atlanta, I set out to read the Bible in a year. About 5 verses a day does it, if memory serves me right. I also gave up reading science fiction and thriller novels. After struggling to finish The World According to Garp, I also gave up modern novels for years. I set out to read Moby Dick for real. It had been a boring struggle to read it in college. And it proved to be a boring struggle again. Two years later, the third time was a charm.

In the mid-1990s, I discovered the pleasure of reading Don Quixote and then The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul — that book had been sitting in a box in the attic since leaving my Connecticut house four or five years earlier. I ran through most of Naipaul’s books over the next few years, as well as discovering The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner, and an interesting but strange novel by Iris Murdoch. I also began to read the collected essays and historical works of Jacques Barzun, the books of John Lukacs, and was quite impressed by Douglas Southal Freeman’s biography of Washington (1-volume abridgement, alas). In the meantime, I’d discovered it to be easier to read books in the sciences which were intended for serious non-specialists, even some serious overviews of, say, particle physicists, written for physical scientists outside of that highly specialized field.

Best of all, I was reading critically though I’d resisted the efforts of a few good teachers in high school and college who could have taught me a few good skills and could have helped me shape my mind at a younger age — perhaps to better effect. Unlike many of my fellow-Christians, I can read a classic of human thought and distinguish between a claim that a certain dogma is a revealed truth and a claim that a dogma is true based on lines of speculative thought. Unlike many of my fellow Americans, I can see the pointers to American war-crimes when reading of the struggles between Patton (held the moral high ground) and the allied leaders during WWII (war-criminals to a man). Moreover I can even look in horror at a movie that glorifies Custer and realize at that fateful scene: the evil bastard is about to lead a murderous charge upon a camp filled with women and children. We Americans are so capable of censoring our thought that we can display our war-crimes on the screen and everybody cheers because Custer must be a good guy — he’s committing his crimes under the American flag.

That is one of the dangers of a stunted mind and a deformed soul. You interpret the world according to what suits your immediate convenience, not according to any objective law or any form of human reason. Let’s recover our minds and souls so that we might at least recognize when we do evil.

As faith leads to understanding, imagination leads to the harder-edged cognitive skills. Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge and his own intellectual biography indicates that his imagination led where his reason sometimes struggled to follow. In particular, human beings are the sorts of creatures living in the sort of universe that our imaginations should be shaped to the demands of narratives.

Do you wish to rehabilitate your mind? Do you wish to throw off the shackles you put on your own mind and soul to the benefit of the gods of the marketplaces? If so, you should consider adopting weird reading habits. You should read demanding novels by the likes of Tolstoy and Austen, old-fashioned historical narratives by the likes of Daniel Boorstin and Stephen Toulmin, philosophy by the likes of Plato and MacIntyre. Most of all, read the Bible and read it literally in the sense of Augustine: take it as truth according to the intentions of the human author of that particular book. And it will take some imagination and discipline to determine what that intention was.

Explore posts in the same categories: literature, Modern culture, Moral issues, Religion

2 Comments on “Recovering Your Mind and Soul”

  1. Please forgive me Lloyd. There must be some deep spiritual meaning to all that you wrote and Im just too dense to grasp the signifigance. As most people often do, I finished the post with the feeling that “Learn baby learn!” was your point and reading whatever text you desired, all texts being equal, would add value and depth to your understanding and pleasure in your life. I noticed your political commentary mixed in with your admonition to accept my basic stupidity and self inflicted blindness to reality. Thanks for pointing out my flaws and the blindness from which I suffer. I intend to rise to elitist heights myself one day, gazing down on the unwashed and ignorant, pontificating pointless exercises to make the lives of others worth living.

  2. loydf Says:

    Those aren’t typos on my blog-sites: my name has one “L”, Loyd.

    A few years back, my sister finished her master’s in psychology and took a research course to fill out requirements. She showed me an article by a group that examines reading skills by looking at the reading levels in American newspapers. They said the average reading-level in American newspapers in the mid-1990s was sixth-grade and had fallen to fourth-grade by the early 2000s. Besides any issues of me being an ‘elitist’, I’m frightened that journalists and citizens with such low levels of ‘knowledge-acquisition’ and abstract thinking skills are in nominal control of the most powerful government and military in history.

    Read some of Hannah Arendt’s books: “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, or “The Life of the Mind”. These are all ‘elitist’ books — dense and hard-to-read — and some parts of them were published originally, in the early 1960s, in the mainstream magazine, “Life”. She started out arguing that most of the evil in modern times was executed by nice, middle-class people — the dedicated Nazis and Stalinists and British Imperialists were not bright enough to carry out their own schemes. By the last book, “The Life of the Mind”, she had changed her thesis slightly: she said those nice, middle-class people could blindly do evil things because they simply didn’t think. In his book on the mess in Vietnam, “In Retrospect:The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam”, Robert McNamara, used similar language to explain his own blindness and that of other government officials.

    These issues are all intertwined. Our political problems, and they are getting worse, and our diplomatic-military problems, and they are also getting worse, are largely due to our belief that learning about history isn’t necessary before you go out to change other people’s lives, in Harlem or in Nigeria or Africa. Our charitable efforts can be just as dangerous as our military adventures.

    The nice thing about being ‘elitist’ is that I know a little bit about Afghanistan. And I can do a google search that shows translations of the interview that Zbignew Brezinski (spelling might be off, but he was Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser) gave to a French magazine in 1998 where he admitted the United States set out to cause trouble in Afghanistan and trained the Taliban and the embryonic al Qaida to force the Russians to invade. That’s right. He admitted the Russians didn’t invade until we had trained some very nasty men in the fine art of killing civilians and disrupting civilian life. Those men who flew into the Twin Towers were skilled in setting up terrorist cells because they were trained by men trained by the CIA.

    Maybe we should encourage an elitist attitude that will at least tell us that our leaders have sometimes been more dangerous to us than those they declare our enemies? And maybe political thinking and general thinking skills are intertwined?

    But you’re right. My real interests are spiritual. I don’t think that intellectual or moral or spiritual deadness are good things. You bring your mind and soul to a higher state of life, just as you bring your body to a higher state of life by proper life. Worship and prayer and charitable activities are more important to most people, but some of us are called to a different activity. And my activity is important. If you ever feel a desire to read about the American Revolution, you might be surprised at the high intellectual development of those who had the courage to risk lives and fortunes for the cause of independence and you might be surprised at the high level of debate which accompanied the founding of the United States.

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