Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Are People Actually Thinking?

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph

March 2011

I've always wondered what people are actually thinking. It boggles the mind when you see what they do, what they say. Are they thinking? I took a course in psychology, way back when, to try to understand it. What I learned was when the environment of lab rats was put into turmoil, the rats went crazy. Is that our world today? Are people simply reacting to our nutty environment, the terror, the aggressiveness, the pace, the economy? Which came first, behavior or thinking?

You know what you are thinking. In the interest of trying to figure out what you or others are thinking, I thought I'd tell you what I am thinking.

I don't think you can surmise what goes on in a person's mind, one can't read their actual thoughts by simply noting their behavior. You can't overhear what they are thinking, as though they are doing a Shakespearean soliloquy.

I have to admit that in recent years I have started to think aloud, talk to myself. I am often alone for great periods, and suddenly realize that I haven't said anything for hours. My cell phone is just sitting there. Though I am married and have friends and family, I don't think aloud where others can hear me. So up to now no one knows what I am thinking, unless I tell them. When I write they may have some idea but writing is different.

A great many of my thoughts, I am sure, are not unique. I am a member of society and the human race, which is comforting, though I like to think I am me and no one else is me. My thoughts, as yours are too, were different when we were young, growing up, getting an education and at different stages of life.

So what are some of the things I have been thinking lately?

I have done a lot of reading in my time of philosophy and psychology and the classics. They are a part of me, but I don't think of them actively that much now, with some exceptions.

When I look in the mirror in the morning I sometimes talk to my image. Who are you I wonder? What do people think about you? They see my profile and the back of my head, which has to give them a different view of me physically, in addition to the frontal view that is familiar to me.

When someone calls out my name I am somewhat surprised, though of course I shouldn't be. I use their names, why shouldn't they use mine? My parents named me and for the rest of my life I have come to realize that is me. If I had changed my name, which I had thought of doing, would that also be who I am?

And what does it mean to be a senior, to have lived a portion of what others call history? I was "it" a while ago in a game of "Trivial Pursuits." I had to select a category. I was not up on sports or contemporary music, or so many other things. I knew something about history, so I chose it. Every question was about something that had happened in my lifetime. History!

To have lived through the Great Depression, World War II, The Korean War, Vietnam, all those presidents. Other people's history.

Have you ever thought about all the numbers in your life? Social Security, your land telephone number, cell phone number, your address, the phone numbers and addresses of the people you know, if you work, all those numbers, how much money you have, how much you have lost, your library card, your credit cards, pin numbers, checking account, passwords, license plate, driving permit, passport number, date of birth, wife's or partner's numbers, your combination lock, your safe deposit box, the temperature, the distance of the moon and the planets, how many days in November, your weight. You get the picture. Be grateful you are not on Roman numerals. How do you remember all those numbers?

I think a lot about my wife, of course, and my friends and family, and I'm sure they think about me, though one can't know exactly what they are thinking. Fiction describes people, some times going into their heads, added to the observations of behavior. Can that be utilized to understanding the way people actually think?

Psychologists, philosophers, do they know? The closest I can come to guessing what you are thinking has to do with the news, politics, family life, relationships, sports, the movies, television, the economy, healthcare, things to buy. We think about what we see and hear on the media, to paraphrase Will Rogers, who ironically said he only knows what he reads in the newspapers.

Kids, teenagers, adults, tomorrow's seniors, heads full of thoughts, some wise, some banal. Sex, children, survival, jobs, money, pleasure, health, joy, fear -- all those thoughts, the good and the bad. We may not know them, but as the Bard reminds us, "Thinking makes it so."

One of the little things I think about is what I should have for a drink before dinner. Or whether I should have a drink. I have heard that having a drink, as long as it is not in excess, say two or three, isn't harmful. In fact, a glass or two of wine with dinner is actually beneficial. And enjoyable. Eating, in excess, isn't good for you. Nor is sex these days.

What else do I think?

There is, of course, the world, our country, the suffering and joys, what it all means, if that were possible.

Sometimes I am not thinking at all, just reacting, living the day. But when I am not day dreaming, there are more things I think about.

Bob Herbert, The New York Times columnist, makes me think about the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer and the middle class losing that position in society that they have had since World War II. Are we losing our democracy, while Egypt and perhaps parts of the Middle East, may be gaining theirs?

Why do some people order Coke when they go out to dinner? Why do they order a hamburger at a good restaurant? Why do they dress down instead of up? Why do they shout and laugh so much in restaurants? Why is the music, if that's what it's called, so loud in restaurants? The French don't allow it. So much better for your enjoyment of a good meal.

Why do some people drive so fast, even in the rain? And so aggressively, without common courtesy?

Am I being too critical? I wonder about that sometimes. But not enough.

What do I like about some people? That they're nice, funny, interesting, look good whether they are good looking or not. Why don't I like Best Sellers, popular movies? Am I an elitist? What's so bad about being an elitist? Wasn't that once upon a time a distinction like a good education?

I think about my skin a lot. It's so vulnerable. Is that the word for sensitive? It cracks and sheds, gets so dry. It has lost its integrity, some one once told me.

I used to think about what people thought of me. No longer, though I want to think I still care, in a way. What are some of the other things I think about?

Security, relationships, what I should have said that time, the moon, the stars, the universe, evolution, faith, books I'm reading and have read, my education, money, death, my travels, my health, my garden, my 71 Olds Cutlass Supreme convertible, what's going on, where it's going, so many questions.

Enough about me. What are you thinking, right now?

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

You're Only Dead Once

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright Elliott Joseph

February 2011

To life!

Hey, wait a minute. This blog is supposed to be entertaining. What am I doing writing about death? Well maybe what has an absolute end can help provide meaning to what comes before.

Ernst Becker opens his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Denial of Death," with a quote from Samuel Johnson, "The prospect of death wonderfully concentrates the mind." As the realization came to me of its eventuality, whenever that may occur, I began to prepare information for those who will have the responsibility of taking care of matters after I am gone.

What started this for me? Besides my own natural thoughts, I was faced with all those tragedies and disasters in the news, floods, tornados, storms, shootings, war, disease, the ever presence of obituaries.

But what sealed it for me was deleting the names in my address book of those friends and family members who have passed away. What a terribly sad and painful thing to do! Everyone dies, but how to accept it? If I could retain the names of the dead, perhaps their ghosts would comfort me.

There is so much being written about death these days. The media, the literature, the films, the theater. It's hard to escape it.

Live forever? Jonathan Swift cautions us about that, as you may recall from that part of Gulliver's Travels about the Struldbrugs.

"Happy notion where every child hath at least a chance for being immortal...their minds free and disengaged from the continual apprehension of death." What advantages I would acquire if I lived forever, I thought.

"The question," Swift writes, "was not whether a man would choose to be always in the prime of youth, attended with prosperity and health, but how he would have a perpetual life under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it.

"Loss of teeth and hair, no distinctions of taste, eating and drinking without relish or appetite. The diseases they were subject to still continue. In talking they forget the common appalation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations."

And so Emerson writes, "As the bird trims how to the gale, I trim myself to the storm of time, I man the rudder, reef the sail, obey the voice of eve obeyed at prime; 'Lowly faithful, banishing fear, right onward drive unharmed; port, well worth the cruise, is near, and every wave is charmed.'"

And John Donne. "Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so."

For some, I guess, like Donne, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more, death, thou shall die."

Every creature, from the beasts of the jungle to the tiniest insect, does everything it can to avoid death, and yet there are men and women and boys and girls who come to welcome it, though in truth, others embrace it tranquilly, if not eagerly.


To life!

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You're Only Dead Once