In his last movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Spencer Tracy confronted the problem (for that man, in that time) of his daughter’s plan to marry a black man.
To see the movie today is to be struck with Tracy’s full minute and thirty seconds of screen time… just thinking. He is alone, at night, on his own terrace, standing or walking with his hands folded behind his back. In long shots, we see his rugged face reflecting the mental grind of deliberation and judgment.
In its own way, the scene is shocking. As art, it suggests that thinking requires solitude and space. We need the freedom to just wander through the rooms of our sanctuary, processing – at our own pace – through problems and possibilities. We also need wide latitudes for considering our response (if any) to public issues and institutions. Like Kramer in Seinfeld, I may choose to not wear the ribbon.
The freedom to think, without pressure, is a crucial liberty. And we are surely losing it. Today our sanctuary is wired with alarms that bring official power storming into our private world. They seem to have full authority to confiscate computers, demand personal reading lists, ask why certain words were Googled, close lemonade stands and track mud throughout our realm.
In fact, the spirit of our times seems to despise the whole idea of sanctuary. We cannot be trusted to inhabit a personal “castle” of thought. Presumably, our need for protection from, oh, terrorism, child predators, economic risk, etc. is so severe and urgent that experts must think for us. We live in the cultural assumption that consequences are so awful that individuals can no longer have the luxury of free thought. That may be why we have criminalized so much. It takes very little to trip the alarms. Increasingly, the entrenched powers have the right to come down on anyone at anytime.
It also seems that today we are allowed to have a “position,” but not allowed to take our time getting there. We used to think our way into certain convictions. Today, we usually arrive at a particular view because it is announced by shrill voices or because a group (our own or a dominant one) prefers or demands it. So, like leaves, we get blown into a corner. But we can’t explain why or how we got there.
It seems that everything today must be…efficient. And efficiency requires automation, compliance and conformity. To stop and think is like praying in the post office. Chaos. The atmosphere explodes with sparks if anyone resists the undercurrents of the age.
And everything must be fast.
Need my funds immediately? OK, if I just give the details of my cash and credit life to the financial institutions, they will make it so easy and fast. Trust them; they’ve already thought through it for me. The smartest guys in the room will take care of everything.
We move so fast that we depend on manufactured or archived thoughts. That’s why we love quotes. Ben Franklin or Frederick Douglass did the hard work – the months or years of strolling through the thinking process. We just scream off the freeway long enough to grab a sack of their quotes at the drive-through window.
Increasingly, humans are cells in a mass mind. Thinking has moved from the individual to the collective. “Wiki” describes that new way of thinking; it is a collaboration of mostly anonymous contributors. Because anyone can create and change the content, and leave no fingerprints, individuals have been largely sheared away from the burden and responsibility for anything.
That may be why no one seems to give a damn. We know we can’t change anything, so we stop caring. “Whatever” is the default response of the age.
Joanne and I have been married, and joyfully, almost forty-eight years. But we found that the only way into that sanctuary was to live in counter-cultural love. We simply could not and cannot live by the reasons and rhythms of dominant culture. To do that would steal everything we have.
Maybe the same thing is true of thinking. What if some engaged in active resistance of the realm? What if some heroic or romantic individuals would return to the timeless audacities of thought by…
Stepping into the beauty of silence and meditation?
Presuming to take a long time just looking and listening?
Becoming curious again?
Embracing ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty?
Learning to seek out wise people for personal counsel?
Daring to give a damn?
The audacity of thought is looking beyond the visible until we see the unseen. No matter how long it takes or how many rules it breaks.