Chapter 7 — Thinking about Thinking
Now, let’s think about thinking. There is a popular superstition that the public does not want to think. Where it came from or who is sponsoring it would be hard to discover. But it is refuted and exploded before our eyes.
Everybody who has lived long enough to become aware of having any interest in anything finds pleasure in thinking. That he does not think about your pet subject or mine is no indication whatever that he does not think about his own pet subject or love to think about it.
You and I think about what we are interested in. It is the greatest pleasure we have. As often as not we do not realize it, we do not know the source of the pleasure we enjoy. We fancy that it is the easy chair, the satisfactory dinner, the comparative peace in the house after the children have gone to bed, or the opportunity to let go after “the strain of the day,” thus soothing our nerves, relaxing our muscles, taking the burden off our brain. But it is not any one or all of these; it is the sheer satisfaction that always comes from letting loose the one great faculty that we possess.
We do the average person a great injustice in assuming that he does not think or that he does not want to think. Because he seems to take some of his opinions ready-made from newspapers or from other people, why should we conclude that he has no ideas of his own? As a matter of fact, as soon as I fall in with this notion that he does not think, I am falling into the very shortcoming of which I am accusing him. And when I do that, I prove only one thing: that I am just like him, that I think clearly about some subjects and muddily about others. Why? Because I am interested in some subjects and not in others.
It is frequently said by people who profess to have studied the subject that thinking is an exceedingly difficult and unattractive job. We accuse average folks of dodging the task of thinking whenever they can. This charge is not true. If you and I do not choose to think about one subject, it is because we prefer to think about another. But think we do—and get out of it not merely most of our fun but all the fun we have.
You will probably grant that a boy is as natural a specimen of the human, family as we can choose for an example. If your boy does not show any aptitude for study in school, you and his teachers are prompt to unite in declaring that he finds it hard and distasteful to think. But try him; give him something that vitally concerns him, and he will think—original thoughts.
Suppose your boy gets interested in a printing press, in building a radio receiving set, in collecting stamps,in devising football plays—in any pursuit that gives him a chance to think. He will think! He will think so hard and so earnestly and so feverishly that you can scarcely get him to go to bed at night; and he can scarcely sleep after he gets there. He will pore so steadily over catalogues, he will write so many letters, he will go so far out of his way to reach sources of information and supplies that he will give you concern for his health. He will spend his pocket money on his hobby, and he will work as you never saw him work before to get more for the purpose. He will desert the playground and go without his meals, if you will let him, to give his undivided attention to his pursuit.
Why? Right here is where we so often befool ourselves. We suppose that it is because he takes pride in some achievement, wants some result. But it is not that at all; for as soon as the thing is achieved, as soon as the result is accomplished, he drops it and cares little for it. And to your unintelligent despair and mine, he rushes off on a new tangent, after a fresh hobby. The reason is simple, as a boy’s reasons always are. His whole pleasure in the first undertaking, and his whole pleasure in the subsequent ones that successively draw him away, lies in the thinking about them, and not in the mere possession of the result. Possession is nothing, says he!
Watch your little girl building or arranging her dolls’ house. It is tremendous fun, absorbing every faculty just as long as it is in the doing. But when it is done, energy flags, concentration vanishes, busy hands drop, weariness appears. But let some one with a working imagination suggest a new use for the dolls’ house, for entertaining doll guests, getting up a doll dinner, giving a doll party, and Little Daughter takes fire again and is not tired at all.
Why? Because all the fun was, and is, in the constructive thinking and not in the results! A past joy is of no more consequence than a past trouble. Retrospect is first cousin to stagnation—a saying worth thinking about.
All this has been said before? Certainly. But it is worth reiterating as long as the foolish statement is reiterated that people do not want to think, that they find it hard and distasteful to think, and that they will go to all lengths to avoid thinking. The answer to the reiterated lie must be the reiterated truth. And the reason for discussing it again is that thinking, being the most important thing in life—as is admitted both by those who consider it fun and by those who do not—is worth thinking about, is really tremendously interesting to think about.
It may be that our psychologists believe, as they sometimes teach, that you cannot touch this subject without running into complications. But for the ordinary man there are no complications about it. To him thinking is as simple as eating, and more amusing.
Let us then consider a few examples among the adults. When a man has accumulated two dozen millions or so, we are accustomed to saying that he can enjoy only a small portion of them. We say that he keeps on accumulating not because God he wants the millions, but because he wants power. As he gets power, we see him reach for more power, and we say that he is insatiable. We do not grasp the essential fact that primarily he wants neither the millions nor the power, but the joy of getting them that lies in the joy of creative thought.
The woman who goes in for society has the same motive and achieves the same result in kind.
But both the man and the woman become restless, dissatisfied, miserable, the moment the achieving process comes to a pause in achievement. Yet we call achievement success! It is nothing of the kind; it is the achieving that is success—for success is in finding happiness and in nothing else. “If you miss the joy, you miss all!” All achieving and all its fun lie in the thoughts that precede and accompany it.
Football is an interesting sport, especially to the players. But almost the moment a game is won it ceases to be interesting. If this were not so, the victories of last year would be more interesting than the defeats of this—and they are not. If Yale loses to Harvard today, all details of the game are first-page stuff in New Haven, Yale’s home, as well as in Harvard’s home, Cambridge. Nobody would think of filling a first page there with details of last year’s victory. Why? Because the joy of football is in the game, and not in the winning. If this were not true, it would be more fun to have a team of supermen who could defeat any rival in existence without effort than to have a rival worthy in brawn and brain. Can you conceive anything duller in the world of sport than watching a game in which a superteam is playing? Such elimination of competition would kill sport!
As a bald proposition this is sometimes hard to see. But you have only to look carefully again at your own experience. That the pleasure in anything is in the process of doing it and not in the thing when it is done is as true as that the pleasure in riding continues only while the vehicle is moving. Men who think otherwise retire from active life when they suppose they have done the thing they wanted to do and have only to enjoy the wealth and the leisure they have earned. They become utterly wretched, they become nuisances to themselves and to everybody else, they develop diseases, if they do not get something else absorbing to think about. Without a vital interest, wealth and leisure will ruin any man.
Why? Because thinking is not only all the fun there is in life; it is all we live for—all of us!
Few things are more pitiable than the man who tries to get perpetual and satisfying joy out of past performances, even past triumphs. Men do not begin to live on reminiscences because they are growing old; they grow old because they begin to live on reminiscences. Give a man a topic about which to think, and he will not grow “prematurely old.”
Often we mistake the thing that makes us happy. But is it ever far to seek? Isn’t it always in the busy business of the mind? Can you imagine a heaven where there is no constructive thinking to do? Can you imagine a state where constructive thinking can go swimmingly on that will not be heaven?
Many years ago a boy lived in a little Oriental town. He grew up working at a common trade. He never made much money. He never held an office. He wrote no book and He invented no machine. He was neither doctor, lawyer, merchant, prince, nor soldier. In early maturity He was put to death for daring to think that certain popular superstitions were “bunk,” and saying so. Yet it was He who put His home town on the map in letters so big that it is known the world over. As for His name, you would hesitate to put that of any other human being beside it as its equal in luster—and other persons have been writing books about Him ever since. And all because He made the discovery that the happiness and welfare of a man lie in his thinking. The moment His thesis is stated as He stated it, it won’t be necessary to mention His name or that of His town. He said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” “The kingdom of God,” to most people who haven’t been there, doubtless means, theoretically, that vague heaven of the future—the place where all happiness awaits us! But the very reason why we do not nowadays put people to death for thinking is that we are learning that He was right.
Yet we say that people do not like to think. One way of saying it is to assert that they want only to be amused. Theatrical producers make a slogan of the phrase “Give ‘the public what it wants,” and then try to eliminate from plays all material for audiences to think about. Motion pictures have been made upon the theory that they are necessarily for the “low-brow,” because the low-brow predominates numerically in the world. The notion is that the low-brow is one who does not think. But if we adopt that definition, there is no such thing as a low-brow.
You disagree with this statement? And you find pleasure in disagreeing? Then it is because the assertion stirs you to think. It is not in the disagreement that you find pleasure—no; nor in your feeling of superiority to the propounder of the thesis. It is just because you are proving the thesis itself by getting fun out of thinking.
We have discussed together the popular superstition that thinking is hard work. The person who thinks so simply finds that the activity that does not tempt his eager thought is drudgery. Who is a bore? One who stirs in us no impulse to think. Why do we tire of reiteration? Because in it thought becomes static. Why do we rebel against creeds? Because they are simply the dead, finished results of yesterday’s thinking, finalities in themselves, and have little to offer for today’s fresh thought. Who is a dead man? One in whom thought has ceased—whether he is on his feet or under the sod. Who is a live man? One whose thoughts are afire. Who is the happy man? He who thinks.
Why came the cross-word puzzle? It is not an entertainment for the moron alone; its fascination tempted the man and woman of brains. It stimulated thinking. Rudimentary? Perhaps; but all growing things begin that way. Why did bridge live and mah jongg die? Why does Henry Ford say, with undoubted sincerity, that it would be fun to begin life over again? Why did Steinmetz hide himself away from fame and fortune in his laboratory, and why did Edison refuse to allow his hearing to be restored? All for the same reason: because it is fun to think—more fun to think than not to think—so much fun that men cast aside an occupation that rouses little thought for one that rouses more.
Anticipation is nine tenths of the joy of life, because anticipation is constructive thought. One who does not anticipate never enjoys anything. You say that an unexpected gift may give pleasure even when the surprise of it has allowed no opportunity for anticipation? It gives pleasure in exact proportion to the anticipation that it stirs as to the use of the gift. Give a woman a new car; she rejoices in anticipated riding—or parading. Give her the same car in a country without roads or spectators, and where is her pleasure in it? Elect a man to office; his satisfaction lies in his expectation of using it. Does applause please you and me? Only as it stirs us to build up in thought a further achievement. And he who learns that all joy lies in achieving through thinking becomes indifferent to applause—yes, and to censure.
Have I a mind? I have not, my mind has me! Indeed, I am my mind; I am nothing else. Everything else I think I am is just that—merely what I think I am. Everything outside me is to me what I think it is. You know this; I am merely reminding you of it. If I have no thoughts about a thing, it does not exist for me. By deliberately cultivating constructive thoughts about an idea I bring that idea into concrete existence. Bringing things into existence is the chief end of man; and whether he thinks so or not, whether he believes it or not, he is forever creating in his thoughts. It is not merely man’s business to create; it is his nature; it is his mission; it is his pastime. He can’t help creating!
Do we create evils? Certainly; all the evils there are—just by thinking evil. Do we create good? Assuredly; simply by thinking good. All thought is constructive. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We construct destruction when we think destruction. We create war by thinking about it. We create what we do not like by thinking about what we do not like—sickness, trouble, poverty. If you do not believe these statements, you cannot think long about them—really think, honestly think—without becoming convinced. Do we create happiness and health and wealth by thinking about them? Of course—by straight thinking.
But what is straight thinking? Another name for intellectual honesty. What is intellectual honesty? It is looking, squarely at any subject, seeing it as truly, as frankly, as unequivocally, as self-forgetfully as we can. It is seeing a thing without allowing any outside consideration to influence our vision of the truth about it. It is simply allowing our intelligence and imagination to take hold of truth as we know it.
We all know the truth when we see it. And we can see it by looking for it. The ability to see it is a divine gift—or a natural endowment, if you prefer the term. The truth for me about any given subject may be that I do not know the subject; but I know the truth. If I start there and think honestly about that subject, I shall soon see some of the truth about it. If I think about it long enough and steadily enough and single-heartedly enough, I shall learn much truth about it. I may find it expedient to turn to outside sources for short-cuts in my process—to learn what other men have thought about it. But if I am thinking truly, I accept only those thoughts of other thinkers that measure up to my standard of the truth. No authority for me unless his thoughts do measure up.
Genius is clear vision of truth—nothing more nor less. Masterpieces are the visible and tangible expressions of great visions of truth. Carlyle said, “Genius is an immense capacity for taking trouble”; there is also a popular saying that “genius is hard work.” But genius is neither; it is only in the expression of genius in words or in works that infinite pains are requisite. Say infinite care, rather! The vision itself, if it is clear enough to rank as genius, will force one to infinite care in its perfect expression. But sheer genius forces the very form of the expression; and what appears to onlookers to be the hard work involved in expression is sheer joy to the expresser! Why? Because real thinking is sheer joy! Because right thinking is living in “the kingdom of God.”
Men fail of expressing the vision of the truth only when they allow themselves to be influenced in their thinking by some consideration other than the expression of what they have seen. Fix your eyes on the effect that you aim to produce, and at once you are looking away from your vision of the truth and are ceasing to see it clearly. At best, you then see it obliquely, with consequent foreshortening, distortion, loss. Consider your phrases, and your attention is distracted. In this distraction lies the difference between the divine flashing of the truth and clever phrase making. And when and only when you attempt to be clever, the thing becomes work. Form dictated by an eye to opinion destroys itself. The moment any one bows to an authority outside himself, he blindfolds his inner eye and ceases to create. He becomes a mere assembler.
All art, all invention, all revelation, come through the inner eye; only outside considerations blind us to the true vision. Consideration of the critic’s attitude toward the expression, of the editor’s judgment, of the buyer’s fancy, of the public’s estimate, of the box-office results, of reputation, of reward, of fame, robs us of the ability to see!
Yet Truth is what the world strives for, pays for, weeps for. Because so few of us realize this, the world at times—at all times, perhaps—is starving for Truth. Because it cannot find the real thing, it grasps at the half-truth. But no man needs to starve for Truth; it is more plentiful and more accessible than bread. It comes plentifully to the man who discovers what fun it is to think; who realizes where the fun comes from when he is thinking. Every normal man is a potential genius, because it is divinely given him to see Truth, if he will, and to let it express itself through him in the form that it selects and shapes. The common man is a divine creature; he has only to let himself appear what he is, instead of trying to appear what he wants somebody else to think he is. We wreck the very genius of our children by forcing “considerations” upon them. We wreck our own supreme gifts by clinging to the considerations that somebody has imposed upon us.
We destroy the most marketable quality of what we have to sell by striving to put into it marketable qualities—by not realizing that we cannot paint the lily. We have only to pick it with infinite pains to preserve its perfection. Coal would burn no better if we gilded it. Wheat loses food value as it becomes white flour.
This idea is as old as the hills—and so is gold; but to each man who discovers it for himself it is forever new and marvelous, as is the fresh out cropping of precious metal to the old miner. Every human being carries around with him an unworked mine in which lie all the happiness, all the well-being, all the pleasure that he will ever get.
Here, then, is a formula: If you are not happy, try thinking. Let your mind select the subject that most fascinates it. Ask of your own mind the truth about that subject. The greatest question that the human mind ever formed is “Why?” Insist on having the truth. Dodging an issue is blinding the inner eye and spoiling the vision. Put every preconceived opinion about your subject to the acid test of this inner assay. Submit authority, your own and that of others, to the searchlight of your own utterly honest analysis. Remember that it is no part of your job to put in his place somebody who disagrees with you. Pitch sophistry on the scrapheap. Ask yourself the whys of the thing. Face every question that arises out of it; dig up every doubt about it and answer it squarely; turn up its pleasant and its unpleasant aspects, its flattering and its unflattering elements; look through it and around it. If you find inconsistencies with your first conclusions, recognize that one or other of your conclusions is necessarily wrong; for there are no inconsistencies between truths and all differences can be reconciled. Because Truth is one-indivisible whole, omnipresent, omnipotent. Truth is God.
What will happen to you? I think you will discover that you are having more fun than you can find in any other pursuit. You will find that you cannot let thinking alone. You will see that other men are constructed the same way—you will understand them better. But what is more, “you’ll be a man, my son,” as Kipling says; you will find yourself. You will find independence. You will find your own relation to men and things. You will find your own wisdom, which the Creator meant you to have. You will find your own taste; you will find your own bent; you will find health; you will find what you have to sell that the world wants. You will find your own religion. You will not find all the truth about the subject that you started with, because all the truth about anything leads invariably to infinity. But you will find your job—for eternity. You will find enough to transform your life. It matters not what you start thinking about, philanthropy, glass-blowing, locomotives, highway robbery, ship biscuit, life insurance, or fish bait. The Spirit of truth will lead you into more Truth; and finding Truth is fun—the only fun there is; and it is the highroad to anything else you want, if you want anything else.
Do you think this is a simple treatment of a tremendous theme—simple to the verge of rashness? Precisely so. Truth is a simple thing for simple minds. The skeptical world, at every fresh presentation of Truth, itself always puts its sneering slur in just those words, thereby proving exactly the main contention herein offered. Finding Truth by thinking is the natural, instinctive amusement of truly simple minds. Simplicity is the essence of the only terms on which Truth will be had. “Know what you mean, and you’ll be great,” Barrie says. And the simple mind, seeing the simple Truth and simply expressing it, thereby becomes great. And the whole of this or any other statement is only true for you or me in so far as it measures up to our standard. It is not what authority says is true, but Truth that is the only authority! “I would rather be right than be President!” Why? It is more fun; and incidentally, the road to the presidency of—anything!