Loyal But Stupid

My wife once visited a woman who could best be described as a bit of a psychic. As part of their meeting this woman described our two boys and me so as to give my wife some perspective. Her description of me? “He has a very strong intellect.” To which I thought, “No wonder I can get so miserable.” Not that I have anything against intellectuals or the intellect itself, but if you have read this column with any frequency you may have noticed that I devote a certain amount of space to “the brain.” I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with my own brain. I love using it, but I sometimes hate the results it provides me, a syndrome Shakespeare best described in Hamlet: “Nothing on Heaven or Earth is good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Of all artists, the novelist is the one who can most often be mistaken for an academic or an intellectual. Unlike the painter or the composer or even the poet, the novelist is sometimes seen as an intellectual who can by the way tell a story, a kind of narrative philosopher. Perhaps some novelists see themselves this way also, but regardless, it is a misleading approach to the business of telling a story.

The brain will do whatever you want, but if you ask it to tell a story it will be completely lost. It does not know what a story is. Your heart knows what a story is. Your heart knows what is funny or exciting or romantic or interesting or frightening. Your brain hasn’t a clue. It is an organizer, a retriever of information, a cataloguer of words and memories. If you feel “funny,” it will find you “funny,” whatever you mean by that. But if you simply tell it, “Fetch me something other people will find funny,” you will receive either something someone else has already written or nothing at all.

The brain is curiously stupid. To be of any use, it must be in service to the heart. You would think it would know this, but it doesn’t. But it is loyal and obedient and if you tell it to listen to your heart, to take instructions from you heart, it will.  When you are feeling lost and scared, it is usually because you have asked your brain to provide you with comfort from the outside world. It cannot. Ask it to listen to your heart, and comfort will be there as surely your own heart beats.

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