(From Brian to Pamela) I read an article yesterday on “self-generated thought” [link: http://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(15)00154-0 ] which in its negative form sounds a lot like being “experts at telling ourselves off silently in our heads,” as you call it in your last open letter. In its positive form, according to the article, self-generated thought is associated with “creativity and a patient, long-term style of decision-making.” The authors’ point was that you can’t have one without the other. They also used the word “neurotic” a lot, in reference to being a thought self-generator, which amused me. I’ve often thought myself neurotic, especially when watching my romantic relationships crumble in front of me and then realizing it was large part my fault. What relief then, when I get stuck in a rut of self-generated thoughts comparing my efforts at writing a novel to the aged Rev. Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (who spent his life researching and writing a single unfinished scholarly book whose subject, he found, was now out of date) to think of all the people in my life with whom I proved myself neurotic—and take that as evidence that I am in fact creative.
The article also says that deliberately managing self-generated thought through “meditation-based therapies” can be “psychologically protective” yet also “can do more harm than good.” I take that to mean that if you use the current mindfulness fad to try to turn off the bad voices in your head you risk turning off all of them, including the ones that lead to “creativity and a patient, long-term style of decision-making.” Rather than punishing ourselves, then, for our habit of punishing ourselves, I suggest we imagine instead what it would be like to be one of those people whose heads do NOT self-generate thought. What goes through their heads, exactly? (“I see a door. Now I’m walking through it. Before me is a hallway. I walk through to another door.”) These kind of the folks, the article suggests, while less adept at “creative professions” do well in such jobs as “bomb-disposal operative” and “flying a fighter jet in combat”–fields where there has got to be at least as much competition as “novelist” or “graphic designer.” This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Paul of Tarsus:
But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary” (1 Corinthians 12:20-22, New American Bible, Revised Edition).
I leave it to you Pamela, and to our friend Andy, to decide who are the parts of the body that “seem to be weaker”—neurotic people like us, or the fighter jet pilots—and thus are “all the more necessary.”
When it comes to being neurotic, or “crazy-sane” as you call it, and in view of the theme you highlighted from my last latter of doing what we’re passionate about even when it makes no financial sense, I think there’s a tendency to undervalue that second positive aspect that comes part and parcel with the negative voices in our heads: the “patient, long-term style of decision-making.” I remember an interview I read with Woody Allen [link: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1550/the-art-of-humor-no-1-woody-allen
] in which a woman he went to school with tells Allen she married a plumber “but he’s very creative.” Everyone wants to be seen as creative, but who wants their friends to brag about them saying, “Oh that Brian, he’s so patient, and he’s got such a long-term style of decisionmaking.” And yet it takes these traits as much as creativity to create anything of value—or “build systems” in Ventresca’s parlance. Sometimes I berate myself for not being able to have fun like other people. Why didn’t I get the gene that makes me drink more than I should on Saturday nights and spend Sundays hungover? Why am I spending my day off from work writing an open letter to my friend in London about the upside of being neurotic? Because I see more joy in the long-term in one than the other? I guess so.