Sometimes It’s Better to Be Stupid

Because of the concerted effort of therapists over 2 or 3 generations, scouring and shaping the collective human soul as steadily as ocean waves in ceaseless rows grind the beach sand, certain words and their associated ideas have eroded from recognition as we enter the 21st century.

One of those words is “stupid.” It’s a word that children should never hear, according to my son and daughter-in-law. And I know they are right.

My 2 grandsons also are well aware of this prohibition and happy to remind me of it when they are willfully misbehaving.

“Don’t be stupid!” I mean it with tenderness. It’s not a putdown.

I think back to my own childhood and still hear distinctly:

                                                   Don’t be stupid, Johnny!

Like a game of Pong, those words bounce back and forth in my skull today and almost every day. Let me quickly say that this crucial advice did not come from my mother or father. Fortunately I have 2 older brothers who rarely hesitated to point out my youthful failings.

As a result I gained both a frank recognition and a healthy fear of my own stupidity…of which I am oddly proud.

Is it reasonable to advocate stupidity? How is that possible? Here’s a little jingle to to serve as guide –

It’s not stupid if you can’t help it.
It’s not stupid if it’s in the past.
It’s not stupid unless you think it is.
Pray for stupidity.

Let’s think of stupidity as the neglect, not merely the absence, of wisdom. Taking a cue from Augustine, we can define stupidity as the willful devaluation of habits of thought and study that enable the choosing of greater goods over lesser ones.

It’s not stupid if you can’t help it. I’ll grant that most regrettable decisions happen because of lack of education, genetic incapacity, nutritional deficiency or toxicity, history of psychological trauma, or just a problem with brain chemistry and connections. For any or most of these reasons people make decisions that turn out badly. Such decisions are unlucky, but not stupid.

Only a small fraction of regrettable decisions happen, I think, because of willfully devalued knowledge, but those decisions have cumulative effects. Stupid habits of thought tend to recur.

According to modern psychology any decision a person makes is a decision that can’t be helped. In the positivist world of modern psychology, no human act is ever stupid, because the notion that “you can’t help it” is always true.

With perhaps one exception. This judgment of modern psychology seems not to apply to itself. Let’s recognize that the judgment that “any decision a person makes is a decision that can’t be helped” is itself a decision. If this decision can’t be helped, then how can we say that those who do not believe it are wrong and those who believe it are right? Yet psychologists who still embrace modernity believe they are right.[1]

Modern psychology has no way of recognizing a stupid decision and, in fact, makes no reference at all to stupidity. This striking gap in psychology stems from the positivist denial of will.[2]

Stupidity makes sense only if a person believes he has a will. Stupidity is not a lack of knowledge. It is instead an act of will that puts a lesser value on knowledge and a greater value on something else, usually some impulsive desire.

It’s not stupid if it’s in the past. If it’s in the past, then certainly you can’t help it. Sometimes you can revoke an initial decision or make amends for it, but in that case the decision is not entirely in the past. A decision that is entirely in the past cannot be stupid, because it can no longer be helped at all. It may be sad, but it’s not stupid.

We don’t have the overarching position to see our lives from a timeless viewpoint. Don’t count any past decision as stupid. Of course, you might want to change your mind about some things. Then move on.

Like one of those early movies with motion speeded up, scenes of life flashing through consciousness can baffle and silence the will of any person. How can I make my choosing either wise or stupid, shaped by my will, and not merely fait accompli? How can I make it a process to bring either satisfaction or shame and not merely a happening to be observed? One answer is to slow down the process of making a decision.

When a rubber hammer hits the patellar tendon, the electrical impulse along the sensory nerve has only to travel upward as far as the spinal cord, where the motor nerve response is triggered immediately and returns down to the leg producing the knee-jerk reaction. If we contend that thinking occurs only in the brain, then the knee-jerk response involves no thought at all. The stimulus will reach the brain and achieve conscious perception a fraction of a second later, but by the time it is perceived, the response has already occurred.

Too many life-shaping decisions are made in a way that resembles a knee-jerk reaction. The challenge is to slow down the process, to think longer and avoid a rush to action.

Even when quick action is needed, it is best preceded by a long process of preparation and formation of well-considered habits of response.

The most catastrophic decision Susan Storm of Corpus Christi, Texas, ever made was saying yes to my proposal of marriage. Did she make that decision too quickly? Was her process too shallow? Thankfully she made the decision before figuring me out, but her process was not without depth.

She had me make an appointment with her college Baptist pastor near the campus of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, so that he could check out my theology. I passed somehow, and he let me know. Driving back from Waco to Dallas, pumped with excitement, I got a speeding ticket.

Both Susan and I could have been ticketed for reckless stupidity, as we got engaged rather quickly. But we had spent years defining what we would want in a mate. And I think if the assessment phase had been longer, our caution would have gotten the better of us, and we would have missed these wonderful past 41 years and counting.

Of course, Susan also wanted her parents Jean and Ralph Storm to get to know me. When we first met, Ralph pretended to be drunk. This same guy once took his business plan for offshore drilling to Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City and made the sale. A week or two after my first encounter with Ralph, he interviewed me from a big leather chair behind a large desk at a Corpus Christi bank. As if I were asking for a loan!

At the rehearsal dinner on the eve of our wedding, Ralph leaned toward me and gave a bit of advice in a low voice. He told me contracts were cheap down near the border, thirty-five dollars, if I ever mistreated Susan. Welcome to Texas. I was so in love, I thought it was funny, a fine joke.

 

stupidity-ralph-jean-baby-morgan-2
Ralph and Jean Storm with grandson Morgan

I’m not at all chagrined by the way that Susan examined my suitability for marriage. Her decision-making is a conversational and somewhat communal process. She was not merely Susan Storm; she was also and at the same time Jean and Ralph Storm’s daughter, and a former member of First Baptist Church in Waco. Her decision to marry me was grounded in her whole self in every aspect.

 

Ralph and I turned out to get along beautifully. Down deep he was an humble guy who also had drive and determination. He had a farmboy’s large hands, and a heart to match. A keen mind sparkled repeatedly in his rambling conversation. Having grown up on a citrus farm in South Texas, he stayed close to the earth. I enjoyed his kinfolk as well, their stories and hijinks.

They found out I had never been deer hunting. I didn’t tell them that my entire hunting experience until then was limited to a single afternoon shooting turtles with my grandfather. My father had polio, couldn’t walk the fields, and had little interest in hunting anyway. The Boy Scouts taught me how to shoot, and grandfather Billy Guyton told me that turtles ate too many fish in the ponds and I should make sure nobody was on the other side of the pond because bullets could ricochet from the surface when shooting turtles – that’s about all I knew.

stupidity-antlers-in-garage-2


Susan didn’t approve of our deer hunt – 2 of her uncles in the cab of a pickup, myself and her father in back, careening around the scrub brush near Premont Texas bordering the King Ranch – 8 point antlers now hang in our garage and never in the house – but just the same Susan valued the warm relationship I always enjoyed with her father. He loaned me his daughter, and the only collateral needed was my life.


It’s not stupid unless you think it is.
Mostly this means not to yield to anyone’s authority but your own regarding the value you place on wisdom. It also means you can’t call anyone stupid except yourself. There is no place for bullying words to another person, like “You’re so stupid!”

But it also means that you might recognize in yourself a habit that should perhaps be changed. That habit – your repetitious way of responding to certain situations – is either wise or stupid or something in between. If it’s stupid, change it. If you have no stupid habits, you will never learn anything.

Pray for stupidity. If a young person wants to do medical research, it helps if that person has a good grasp of what is known in the field. But even more important and much less frequently encountered, the novice should perceive the unknowns, the gaps to be filled. In any career path, both the recognition of inadequacies in the field and the acknowledgment of one’s personal inadequacies are crucial early steps in learning.

Wisdom, which refers to a way of ranking goods that leads to few regrets, or equally a pattern of choosing that endures without reversal, would have no depth if not for an acknowledged pit of stupidity in conscious life. Wisdom requires not merely the possibility of stupidity; wisdom requires the embarrassing blatant demonstration of stupidity now and then.

Digging into the landscape of ordered life, stupidity uncovers evidence of the will. Behold! Stupidity itself is a good, a golden nugget much to be sought. Through a logic of self-reference, both stupidity and wisdom shape the contours of a willing life. Life undisturbed by willing gains only comfort and seeks no victory.

The inscription at Delphi read “Know thyself.” Epimenides, summoned to advise and reform the Athenians, urged them to recognize self-contradiction. Socrates took heed of both admonitions.

His accusers asked Socrates, “Why do you think you are wiser than all of us?” Socrates replied, “I know nothing.” And they asked, “Why then do the young people seek wisdom from you?” He replied, “I believe it is because I know that I do not know, but you think that you know, yet do not know. I have this speck of knowledge, that I recognize my lack. I suppose that is why I might be wiser than most.”[3]

Pray for stupidity. Socrates did. If somebody ever tells you, “Don’t be stupid!” count yourself lucky. Take it as a compliment. Recognize that it’s much better to be insulted than to be judged incapable of stupidity.

 

*     *     *

I went over these principles with my older grandson, age 9 at the time. Shortly thereafter he did something that at least had the appearance of being dumb.

Boy:                         I thought you said stupidity is good.

Pappy:                    Only if you get past it!

 

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Featured image:  Oil painting signed “Fern,” owned by Jean and Ralph Storm. Photo by the author. Other images: Jean and Ralph Storm with grandson Morgan, family photo, CC0. Deer antlers in the garage, by the author, CC0.

[1] This argument parallels one in an earlier blog that critiques the founding principle of positivism – “Among all hypothetical objects, events, and relationships, only those which stand up to scientific testing are real.”

[2] While modern psychology gives no recognition to the term, we may rest assured that there is plenty of stupidity in modern psychology. To contend otherwise is to suggest there are no important gaps, nothing much left to learn about psychology except the details of an established system.

[3] A paraphrase of the beginning of Plato’s Apology of Socrates.

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