The Back Room

With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.


He used to be intelligent.

I have heard family members, friends and nursing staff utter this phrase, while shaking their head slowly.  At different facilities, patients of mine are referred to in this way.

Given a diagnosis of senile dementia, most of what these particular patients is registered with patronizing pity or humor.  To listen to their words, these men are not aiming for either.

There can be wisdom in history and my patients have stories to tell.

I spent nearly an hour discussing US history with one man in particular.  He had much to say about the history of non-violence and war.  How the Department of War morphed into the Department of Defense after WW2.  The experiments on incapacitation over killing that never made its way to Vietnam.  The idea of a nuclear war and the ignorance of how devastating it would be and how lightly the US government appears to take it.

In between his dementia flavor of how all of this is related to David Copperfield and the regions of Upper and Lower Bayonne, I can hear an intelligent man.

And what the hell does that mean anyway?  He used to be intelligent.

I know when family members say it, it is with loss.  The man they knew has died.

What I see in intelligence is the questioning.  There are facts and there are questions.  Intelligent people can tell the difference.  There are people who take facts and attempt to turn them into questions that will serve a particular agenda.  These people are close to intelligent and then take a sharp turn right towards manipulation.

Pandering, proselytizing, bullying is not what Socrates had in mind when he espoused questioning.  Questioning is often running the same path as learning.  I do not know the answers so I want to talk about it with people and learn something new.

It gets tricky when opinions are introduced.  Questions mixed in with beliefs.  How I approach the situation is to speak on my belief as a springboard for discussion.  I am not trying to convince you to agree.  I want to talk about it and see what you think.  This means you may have the same belief, a different belief, or no opinion.  And that’s okay.  The object of the discussion is to share and to learn something new.

I still return to Aaron Sorkin’s quotation, as I have already used in this blog.  He used it in The West Wing, when Leo hires Ainsley Hayes and in Sports Night when Isaac explains to Jeremy why he hired him.  Paraphrasing, if you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people, and if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.

My exposure to other cultures outside the United States has informed my domestic thinking.  For example, I have an opinion about September 11, 2001.  On that one day, we experienced something that happens to many countries on a daily basis.  That fear carries no greater importance yet because of the United States’ status it appears to shine brighter in its atrocity.  I also believe in tragedy it should have endeared us closer to our world, maybe even showing empathy to other countries that live in constant fear.  Unfortunately, it did the opposite, further insulating the United States and pitting us against other countries.  It would have been a grand moment for Socratic questioning, as Cornel West said at the time.  An opportunity squandered in favor of war.

My belief and opinions above have been positioned before and after a fact.  To some it may seem a little manipulative, as I have chosen the facts to act as bookends, and I concede the point.  I don’t wish to be proven right or wrong.  I merely have my opinion/belief as an opportunity for discourse on something larger than myself.

I consider such discourse intelligent.  In discussions like these I am thrilled to learn something new, about myself and about the topic at hand.

I wish to surround myself with smart people who disagree with me.


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