I said the stupidest thing ever to this guy I think is terrific, and now I'm afraid he must think I'm stupid. My question is, how do you know if you're stupid or not? Please, I don't want to be stupid. Thanks,
Dear Gretchen S.,
Man oh man, I'll bet you whatever you don't mind losing that I can out-stupid you any day of the week. Get this: I'm 12 and my uncle, trying to make a point to a kitchen full of people about the sad state of education, asks me who fought in the Civil War.Here's exactly what I say: North and South? -- Panic -- East and West? I can still feel the horrible blood-heat rising into my face as if I've bent over to sniff a hot radiator. Here's another radiator-sniffer: I'm 21, and my blind date tells me she's been reading Flannery O'Connor. Do I like Flannery O'Connor? Oh yes, says the college boy, I do, I like him very very much. Flannery O'Connor, I'm informed, is a she.
Gretchen, these are just for starters. Again and again, to avoid the hot-faced humiliation of not knowing, I've pretended to have heard of things I never heard of, claimed to have read things I never read, nodded great big of-course-of-course-nods without a clue what everybody was talking about. For the longest time, Gretchen, the worst thing that could happen to me was that my Big Secret would be discovered: that I really was, all kidding aside, stupid.
And then 26 years ago my wonderful Aunt Jane sent to me a birthday present: a framed passage, copied in elegant calligraphy, written by a man I had never heard of, Henry Beston:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings, they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and the travail of the earth.
And Gretchen, hallelujah! Suddenly I'm released! I'm free! Free to be stupid if that's what you want to call me. Because when I read that passage, in my guts, in my heart, there's no way I'm on the Civilized Man Team. No way. I'm on The Animal Team. I'm just one of the creatures who gets distorted when Civilized Man surveys me through the big fancy glass of his superior knowledge.
But guess what. So are you. So is everybody. That guy Henry got a lot of things right, but he got one thing wrong: There is no Civilized Man team. There's only one team:
THE ANIMAL TEAM!
Ok, so maybe I'm a little shaky on the topic of the Civil War, but so are ducks. So are antelope. So are dolphins. So are june bugs. They're complete. I'm complete too. We just don't happen to know the same things. We're all just animals making our best guesses about how to get through the day.
Don't get me wrong. I think we're the smartest of all the animals. In fact, we're brilliant, keeping in mind that our brilliance is measured by instruments and gauges made up by people. It would be a different story, of course, if the if the measuring devices were made up by ducks.
And this guy, Gretchen, if this guy thinks you're stupid, all he's really saying is what anybody is saying when anybody calls somebody else stupid. Which is this: Looks like the two of us know different things.
Here's the good news: Absolutely every living thing on the planet is stupid. You and this guy included. Also, absolutely every living thing on the planet is smart. You and this guy included.
If you're having a hard time thinking of yourself as just another animal, try this. Sit on a bench in town, and as people walk by on their way to meetings and lunches, focus on just their arms and hands for a while. Now remind yourself that those arms and hands were originally designed to be legs and feet. Through this lens, don't they seem slightly comical, slightly wrong, the way they dangle and swing, like, say, the wings of a penguin?
And now change your focus to the ears of the people as they head for busses and taxis, and notice the cartilage contours inside the ear-flap. Weren't those originally intended to channel sounds of predators into the head? Now they seem to be just kind of hanging around, waiting for their next evolutionary command.
And shift your attention to hair, hair that used to cover us and keep us warm inside our dens, now sitting slightly desperately on top of our heads, pushed and pulled into shapes that please us.
And eyebrows, sweet dutiful eyebrows, wondering if their days are numbered.
And look at the clothes we cover ourselves with. The shoes on our tender pink feet. Jewelry.
Animals all dressed up.
"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals."
Yes we do, Henry Beston. Yes we do.
I hope you find something helpful in here Gretchen. Thanks for your letter.