Are you smarter than you think?
Every day on the Internet, I receive advice. Some of it comes in the form of thinly disguised ads telling me how to get rid of my pot belly in 30 seconds, or the secret food of the ancients that will make me immune to all forms of illness. In fact, I am told quite a lot about what I should eat. Once in a single day I received a post that said I should drink only raw cow’s milk, another post that said I should drink only soymilk, and a third post that said soy was bad for me, and I should drink only almond milk. I have been told obesity kills, and that obese people live longer. Fat, carbs, calories, protein, starches, greens or yellows turn out to be good or bad according to some new study.
There are other kinds of advice I read each day as well: I should only care what a few people think. I should only care what I think. I should not think at all, but let my heart guide me. I should succeed. I should not worry about success. I should be happy. Even if I am unhappy I should be happy. Other posts—which I frankly am more likely to appreciate at this stage of my life—give me license to screw up and be imperfect. I squandered my youth on self-flagellation, trying and of course failing to be “perfect,” whatever that was supposed to mean. Now in my autumn years I am learning simply how to be human. Like many supposedly smart people, I am a slow learner.
All my advice posts come from kind people sharing something to help others. Thank you, Internet friends, for seeing me through rough times. But collectively these posts suggest that we need an awful lot of encouragement, and are so uncertain about life we welcome any little bit of wisdom that gets us through another day.
Many people still remember Grace Kelly, the beautiful and iconic Oscar-winning actress who went on to become Princess Grace of Monaco. Thousands of words were spent calling her a real-life Cinderella, the princess who lived in a pink castle by the sea. A charmed life? Well, maybe in some ways. Yet when Barbara Walters asked her if she was happy, she paused and only allowed that she had a certain peace of mind, or words to that effect. Her answer was qualified; she did not give a simple “yes” to happiness.
The so-called fairy tale princess does not live happily ever after. Neither, it would seem, do you or I. When someone pisses us off, lo and behold we get angry. Sad news makes us sad. Yes, worrying solves nothing, yet no matter how much we say this to ourselves we worry anyway. Our ability to change moods appropriate to the circumstance before us means we are human. It was naïve (to use a polite word for it) to think that through willpower I could alter my DNA. Somehow, self-loathing is separated by the thinnest of lines from self-aggrandizement.
When I was younger, whenever I was happy I thought I’d never be unhappy again. I thought I would and could reach a point where nothing threatened my ironclad happiness. And “ironclad” my idea of happiness certainly was. How glad I am now that I did not become that person! Who wants to be made of iron except Iron Man? (When I was unhappy I likewise thought I’d never feel happy again, but that’s a story for another day.)
It is no accident that there were no self-help books or shrinks until fairly recently in human history. We are the offspring of the times we live in. And many of the assets of today's world also are liabilities:
°Uncertainty: There are so many ideas floating around (and even more because of the Internet) that it gets harder and harder to know what to believe, or even who we want to be when we grow up.
°Impatience: Although our complex social world confuses us, we are supposed to solve our problems instantly. We have Instant food and instant texting, so why not instant happiness? Ever get mad at your “slow” computer for taking 20 seconds to upload?
°Medicine: You may wonder what this word is doing here. Medicine is a good thing, right? But we live in what’s been called a medicalized society. This means that anything we do not like about ourselves or others can be viewed as a condition that can be cured. This in turn implies that self- perfection is possible.
“Life” does not occur merely in the abstract—it is shaped by the surroundings in which it is lived. At times we get frustrated when the answers we are seeking elude us. Yet even believing that radical change is possible is a luxury in terms of human history—or for that matter the world today. Certainly there are a great many disadvantaged people in our society, but globally speaking ours is a fat nation. For example, we use up to one-fourth of the world’s total energy resources, yet we make up far less than one-fourth of the world’s total population—about one-half of one percent, to be exact. How’s that for affluent?
Affluence compels us to ask questions of ourselves that people in other times and places generally did not or do not have the surplus energy—or the need—to ask. And we have the technology at our fingertips to ask away.
I haven’t even mentioned the range of political posts I receive on the internet. Apparently many of us derive a sense of security from believing we know exactly how to fix everything in our country and in our world. God bless freedom of speech. But are the complexities of collective human endeavor as easy to fix as we often like to think they are?
We think that if So-and-So is elected, there will be peace, economic stability, or whatever you think we need the most. Yet in a way, such thinking reflects the uncertainty, impatience and medical model we apply to ourselves. We assume our nation can be fixed, and that we know what being fixed will look like. In effect, we impatiently await the invention of the giant pill that makes everything right in all ways on all levels.
Believing in instant answers where Homo sapiens are concerned is a bit like instant other things: instant coffee, instant pudding, instant mashed potatoes. Don’t you prefer the real thing? And we already have it. They call it life. The recipe is ongoing, both learned and invented as we go along.
As I get older, I am more inclined to agree with Socrates, who said, "I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing."