What Do You Know?

By the end of the day, my little store of gray matter has usually thought all the creative, impressive, look-out-world thoughts it’s going to think for the day (if any), and I turn to reading and mental recreation. In that mood, I came across Anne Lamott’s TED talk, “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.”

Her fifteen-minute homily got me thinking. What do I know that’s worth passing along to other people? What matters to me? If I were stranded on an island with twelve other people, what could I contribute to our store of useful knowledge?

One thing I know that isn’t taught widely enough is the process for collaborative problem solving. The steps go something like this:

  1. Develop a neutral, mutually acceptable statement of the problem.
  2. Collaborate to research and compile every relevant thing known about that problem.
  3. Brainstorm (works best if begun individually) every possible solution.
  4. Choose a solution or combination of solutions to implement, bearing in mind that unforeseen consequences are likely to require further problem-solving.

That’s a deceptively short description of a process that can end wars, save marriages, or keep communities from violent hostility. I’ve seen it work, I know some of parts of the iceberg submerged under those headings, and I use this wisdom a lot in my own life. What is the real, true, simply stated problem I’m up against? Do I have the information I need to solve it?

And so on.

Another aspect of my knowledge toolkit is what I call my Prime Directive, often honored in the breach: When all else fails, and before anything else, be kind and tell the truth. I regard that as the definition of honor–be kind, tell the truth–and it solves myriad moral and behavior conundrums if I will recall and pay attention to it. When I wander from this tent pole, into snark, into prevarication, into self-deception, I  invariably wind up tangled in a mess of darkness.

A third eternal verity that has served me well, handed down from my mother, is: Don’t make decisions when you’re tired. Sleep on it. Sit with it. Resist the relief if making any old decision just for the sake of being done with the uncertainty. Let time work its magic, and be patient. (I am NOT patient.)

I could list a few more, but I’m more curious about what’s on your list of eternal verities. If the nice TED Talk people came around and said, “We will immortalize a 15-minute speech given by you on any topic you think would be a helpful addition to humanity’s store of knowledge…” What would your script focus on? What you ask your audience to think about? What do you really, truly know that’s worth passing along?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble E-gift card.

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20 comments on “What Do You Know?

  1. I don’t believe I could add anything to the world’s knowledge. To sleep, I’d add food. I’d subtract any pain that was possible.

    My own favourite at the moment is, as much as is possible, give others a way to save face.

    • That insight–give others a way to save face–is so important, especially now. Once our pride has no safe exit strategy, we really do tend to get stuck.

  2. Well, it wouldn’t take 15 minutes. I think I would focus on your second aspect – be kind. Be truthful, but as much as possible – be kind.

    • Seems like any religion that’s been around a while ends up there too, and yet, kindness doesn’t yet seem to be the world’s default mode–yet. Guess we have some work still to do.

  3. I like your Mom’s advice about not making decisions when you’re tired. But I would add this caveat–to NOT make a decision, is to make a decision. So make your decision consciously, not because you’re tired or overwhelmed or???? but because that seems the best idea. Sleep on it but make that decision when you wake up.

    One bit of advice I give my kids regularly is to straighten up their bedrooms–especially now that most have their own apartments. Make your bed and put the dirty clothes in a hamper or laundry basket. Dust and vacuum or sweep. If your bedroom is calming and conducive to sleep it can mean you are able to rest better and are more than likely to make those difficult decisions easier. If your environment is less cluttered, your mind can focus!

    The act of straightening up also brings clarity, at least for me. I have resolved more than one sticky problem by doing dishes or collecting trash or sweeping. In my professional life, I file or number music–has to be done–and I am able figure out what I need to do. Doing something mindless but productive is a valid technique but often overlooked!

    • Boy, are you onto something. I call it screen-saver mode, when there’s a task that can’t be done entirely on auto-pilot, but almost. Our subconscious loves those jobs, because the executive brain functions are engaged just enough to keep them busy, leaving everything below the conscious level free to play. There’s a reason great ideas come to us in the shower.

  4. Everything looks better in the morning and don’t borrow trouble from tomorrow are my non-original verities. Most of the time I am just bumbling through life trying to be honest with myself and others and attempting to be kind/fair, so though I may not succeed, I also try to honor your Prime Directive.

    I like Marianne’s allowing others to save face, if we can focus on the specific goal we don’t need others to “lose” in order to achieve something.

    • Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof… of so my mom used to say. Do all moms say that? I’m not very good at shutting off my worry-er. I’m much better about turning worry into action, and action into solutions, but so many problem really are beyond my control.

      This is why we have books, right?

  5. Daddy’s wisdom gleaned from 84 years of living, including 6 trips circumnavigating the globe back when aircraft were novelties & navigation used a compass, watch, sextant and level:

    “If it’s hungry, feed it.
    If it’s naked, clothe it.
    If it needs a shelter, build one.
    If it’s lonely, love on it.
    All the world’s great religions agree on this. The rest of the mess is from men mucking around with or ignoring the rules.”

    There’s a reason they call them the Greatest Generation.

    • Your dad and my mom would have gotten along, and I think generally that generation, that weathered childhood in the Great Depression, had its priorities straight. Well said.

  6. When I’m trying to get to sleep at night, I often find myself mulling over social subjects that provide much fodder for controversy (tho that timing is not the best – I need to relax so I can get to sleep). I’ve thought it would be better to write these thoughts down in a journal – it might provide some interest to someone in the future (I’d love to have a journal from one of my ancestors).

    • Somewhere I have a quote from Hemingway about how writing things down gets rid of whatever’s troubling. Sure works for me, whether it’s working out a theme in romance novel or just journaling at the end of the day. For me, writing is like talking or dreaming, a way to turn the crank on several important mental processes.

  7. I _know_ that life is better with a kitty. 15 years without a kitty, and a lot of silliness about how husband is not an animal person. Rubbish. There’s eons of powerful co-evolution gaurunteeing that there is an animal out there for everyone. If anyone wants to argue, I dare you to watch the Queer Eye where the hero adopts a dog and not cry.

    Kitty came to us when our need was very great, but after living with kitty for five months now I realized my need for a kitty was always very great. Kitty is a big reason why my daughter is doing so much better with school and friends this year. Kitty makes a house a home. Kitty is beloved and doted on by husband, who never had a kitty of his own before, and says out loud and to me, “Why didn’t we get a kitty sooner?”

    I’m never living without a kitty again. (A dog is probably in our future too, and I’m sure when it happens I’ll say the same thing.)

    So apart from kitty. I’d add: never underestimate the power of a home-cooked meal. And it’s okay if the big things take a time, even a lifetime.

    • My only guidance to my daughter for when it comes time to stash me in a home is, “Make sure they have cats. Not much else matters, but they must have cats.” Here’s hoping Kitty is with you a wonderful, long time.

    • The only thing better than one cat is more cats. It’s amazing how they form a colony. We have 12 cats and 2 dogs. While I love the dogs, they are a fair amount of trouble whereas the cats are virtually none.

  8. I don’t have any unique eternal verities, but here some I try to live by:

    * The golden rule – treat others the way you want to be treated.
    * Treat animals as well, (or better) than you do people.
    * If someone is cruel or neglectful towards animals or children, don’t trust them to do the right thing at any other time.
    * A short term win isn’t always a win. Sometimes pushing for more hurts you in the long run – which is more important than immediate gratification. (The exception to this rule is indulging in chocolate or ice cream occasionally.)

    • Those are great rules, and I especially agree about the animals and children. I could digress. I will instead go have a cuppa tea and a little good dark chocolate.

  9. Being a stubborn and fiercely independent person that has brought many a challenge my way with success and failures.It can bring this trait in my character a lot of frustration within my family.My go it alone,I’m alright drives them around the bend when they want to help me.I must understand this,they want to care for me because I’m their mum and they want to return their love and affection.So I must not be so stubborn.But in my working career my stubbornness got me results for the young and old vulnerable people in care.My stand firm attitude to get equipment,staff,better food,environment,treatment,(the list goes on).Got results most of the time.We are all complex people but even our own faults can be turned around and used to do good.In other words know yourself,all your strengths and weakness and balance it out and be a better person for it.Build on what you’ve got.Make a difference.

  10. One of the things I try to remember when we have family disputes (there is a 20-something in the household) is that there are no perfect people here.

  11. Yoga and meditation have taught me to live in the moment. I have a tendency to worry and “what if?” More than one yoga session has started with the invitation to let go of what happened before and not think of what is to come. Breathe and be present. The Yin teacher will end our time by asking us to leave something that doesn’t serve us on the mat. That was elaborated on with her saying: “put down that baggage you carry or drag with you everywhere.” We can’t change the past by dwelling on it. If we worry about what the future holds, we miss what happens in the present.