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Thinking Makes It So: Novelty v. truth v. cliches v. a pleasant lunch

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By Kelly LeVan

We each have our own list. Sunken in our minds, nearly lost in there among names of items we’ve forgotten to buy at the grocery store over the course of our lives, are insights, pure and ancient-sounding in their shrewdness.Roofers, bakers, political candidates, fast-food restaurant managers, Nobel prize laureates, movie stars, even video game geeks have these lists.We rarely discuss them during our lunch breaks, saying, “Mmmm, this is good hummus. By the way, (insert co-worker’s name), after my divorce I learned some interesting facts about blame that have really changed my entire perspective on how to act in an intimate relationship. Let me share them with you.”Maybe that would be more interesting than discussing the various ways in which we are smarter than our bosses. Maybe it would just be presumptuous.Nevertheless, at some point, we start to know what we maybe don’t need to talk about – the facts of life, or of our own lives, anyhow.Most of the time, this requires accepting some responsibility, recognizing our own patterns and cutting these patterns off before they play out their agonizing cycles.To put what is grossly abstract into a “for instance”: Nobody ever wants to get divorced. This is especially true after a divorce, only with the painful word “again” tacked on, and seemingly reverberating through all the optimism of one’s next relationship.Don’t worry; I’m not going to write about my own divorce today. I don’t think it makes for good reading, in part because it’s way too similar to everybody else’s – and uniqueness is paramount when you want to hold an audience’s attention, a fact I contorted and applied wildly throughout my teens and embarrassingly deep into my 20s.I valued originality so highly I couldn’t differentiate between novelty and truth.In other words, if someone told me some rule for prudent living that sounded borrowed from some wellspring of trite adages or clichs, I didn’t listen. I thought less of the rule-speaker for adhering to a principle so thoughtlessly or worse, for moralizing hypocritically, if I could tell he or she sometimes “put the wheel before the horse” or whatever.However, a new idea doesn’t immediately rank more highly than an old idea. People tend to name older films, not new releases, when answering the question, “What’s your favorite movie?” We read classics in literature classes, not The New York Times bestsellers.Family and cultural traditions are kept because they hold proven value.And most of the time, when I finally figure out something wise, divorce-related or not, it turns out the world already have a phrase for it: “Don’t assume,” “Think first” or “Do unto others.”My insights don’t actually come out “pure and ancient sounding in their shrewdness,” as I suggested somewhat insincerely in my opening paragraph.“Seek not happiness too greedily, and be not fearful of happiness,” wrote Lao-tzu.That’s uncorrupted acumen, clean of convention.Take another from Lao-tzu – “To be worn out is to be renewed” – or one from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”When I read these sorts of famous, graceful quotations, I imagine lucidity poured straight from the writers’ mistakes into their pens.I envision Lao-tzu, Plato and their ilk in a holy bubble, away from the kind of wisdom you might hear at a coffee shop, something like “ignorance is the root of all evil.”Oh, wait: Plato said that – first, actually.At some moment in time, each clich was, obviously, an original thought. And likewise, what matters to me now is not whether I live according to some of the same rules as my grandmother or whether I make up new, potential clichs to live by.It seems more important to know why I believe some horrible, overused phrase like “look before you leap” – and most significantly of all, that I realize next time I’m about to leap that, hey, I’m about to leap, and that I pause before, rather than after, the leaping.Maybe this ability comes from hearing that eerie “again” echoing around all the time.In any case, I think it’s easy to rattle off something intelligent. But to know what a specific situation calls for takes actual brains, and to do what’s best takes guts, or maturity.Furthermore, I think I think originality is unavoidable because of that other list, the one-of-a-kind collection of self-imposed disasters we each keep, the one that generates our need for rules to live by in the first place.Because we’re not stupid: We muscle our way through enough bad days, we eventually figure out a way to have as few as possible.

Please send complaints about pontificating columnist to Kelly at laeditor@lamonitor.com.