Great Minds

When I was around 7 or 8, I came across a quote in the Reader’s Digest.

Small minds discuss people, mediocre minds discuss events, but great minds discuss ideas.

I tried to make that my mantra since a great mind was obviously preferable.   I cultivated a distaste for talking about how people were doing or what was going on from a very young age.  I thought if I talked about ideas enough my mind would expand.

When other girls talked about the boys they had crushes on, I would try and philosophize about romance and relationships in more abstract ways.   My friends often did the same, although they weren’t motivated by fear of losing their minds so much as trying to be more ‘spiritual’.

I used to think that I had a better relationship with my brothers because I knew their political  preferences and theological views.  I didn’t know where they were or what they were doing.  Never occurred to me to ask.  Didn’t occur to me to tell anyone either.  I don’t recall ever calling my parents to let them know where I was.  They knew my friends and I thought that was more important.

Talking about people was doubly cursed since gossip was often preached against too: evil and banal.   The African greeting of “How are your father and mother and brothers and sisters and in-laws and nieces and nephews and great-aunts and neighbour…” caught me off guard.

I  began to question the validity of my childhood mantra as I realized that most of the intelligent, compassionate, interesting people I knew liked to talk about people.  And they knew what was going on in the world around them.

A co-worker told me that when he worked as a theoretical physicist in the former USSR he felt pretty superior.  Now he considers that all he did was “fluff” and he sees time spent with his family outdoors as what is more profound.  The exact opposite perspective.

Of course, it isn’t what you talk or think about but how.  If I just parrot others’ ideas without thinking critically, that won’t exercise my mind (anyone else told to memorizing the bible the best medicine for your brain?).  Speaking maliciously about people will release harmful chemicals in my own body.   And being aware of events but doing nothing about them isn’t very useful either.

So, I’m changing that saying:

Small minds put down* other people, circumstances and ideas.  Mediocre minds accept the people, events, and ideas they are told to.  Great minds engage with the world around them and become involved with others.  

Not very pithy, but more accurate.


*Not the same as critiquing.

19 thoughts on “Great Minds

  1. Nymph, yours may be the most stimulating blog post I read this week, including my own. I think two of your points are especially worth emphasizing. First, your point that it’s not the topic that counts, but how we approach it. Second, your call for engagement.

    You know, if you don’t engage the world, you’re like some cartographer who has never been to the places he or she draws maps of. There’s a widespread myth in our culture — which you touch on — that having the right ideas will make you spiritual. But ideas are to reality what maps are to a terrain. Ideas are not the real deal. They are like maps or images of the real deal.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love ideas. I love playing with them. But you don’t get more spiritual from pursuing ideas. If anything, you get more spiritual from engaging life.

    • prairienymph says:

      Thank you. Nice summary.
      For me playing with ideas can sometimes be procrastination or substitution for engaging with the world. But I much prefer it to watching sports. Playing sports on the other hand…

      We really do think that the right ideas have transformative power in themselves with enough exposure and proximity. A Christian I know is always encouraging me just to read the bible (again) as if it has the magical power to change my mind. And we do think that meditating on ideas is what makes us spiritual. Hence the never-ending faith vs works debate in Christianity.

  2. I like your saying much better, prairie nymph, although I’m not sure I’m totally on board with saying that small minds put down circumstances and ideas. Some circumstances and ideas can be quite harmful, abusive, and exploitative. Perhaps it depends on what you mean by “put down.”

    I love what you say about great minds. For some reason it makes me think of Carl Sagan.

    • prairienymph says:

      I agree with you. I was trying to find a phrase that would capture a petty, unthinking destruction. Like the school yard bullies who taunt everyone they can just to establish dominance. We have to criticize but with thoughtfulness and compassion, not brutish maliciousness.

  3. I remember the quote and think that your revised version of it much more clearly states the intent of the original.

    The “Request for prayer” time in church was always the greatest way to share gossip. “Please pray for ___; they are having ___ with ___”.

    • prairienymph says:

      I learned a lot about “current events” during prayer meetings.

      Once I walked in late on a prayer meeting and heard dear Uncle Jim praying for me. Apparently he worried a lot about my well-being and was giving God specific instructions of what kinds of protein I needed to include in my diet. I wish I’d heard him give God instructions about my non-existent dating life.

      Uncle Jim expended the most words per day of any human I’ve ever met. His prayers were long and detailed (understatement). Kindhearted person, but you learned more than you ever expected.

  4. D'Ma says:

    Thought-provoking post, PN. I don’t like to speak negatively about people, but I do like to hear about their lives, their day, their ideas. It’s not what I would call gossip. It’s engaging.

    The concept that only talking about ideas without engaging and investing into to the lives of others sounds detached, unemotional, uninvolved, and kind of robotic. I like to be a part of the experience of life and the lives of those around me.

    • prairienymph says:

      Apparently, people use more of their brains (according to scans) when they are interacting with people than doing other tasks such as math. Our society tends to undervalue using our brains to engage with others while praising a narrow, robotic – brain damaged?- ideal of “intelligence”.

      A cousin of mine refuses to talk about anyone when they are not there, calling it ‘gossip’. I see it as a form of community building instead. We are remembering that person in their absence and including them. (And it is hard to find topics of conversation that are relevant if people can’t be included.) I can’t imagine anyone being afraid of you talking about them without them there 🙂 They would probably feel honoured.

      • For some time, Nymph, I’ve been of the opinion that our ancestors evolved large brains primarily to deal with each other. That is, while I’ve thought the traditional theories that our brains evolved to facilitate tool use, or to deal with rapidly changing environments, etc. have merit, I have thought the decisive factor was dealing with each other.

        But it was all speculation on my part until Dunning (sp?) showed that brain size in primates is closely related to the average size of the animal’s social group. A primate species that tends to live in groups of 15 or so usually has a smaller brain than a primate species that tends to live in groups of 50 or so. And so forth.

        Naturally, I felt like a genius to have guessed right. At least, so far.

        You might be interested Nymph in how I got to thinking about it. The thought occurred to me that most of the scientists studying human evolution have been male, and that most of the theories accounting for brain size seemed to me to “blame” males for brain growth — like the theory that brains grew to facilitate cooperative hunting. So I asked myself, “What do women tend to more or less do better than men?” Socialize! Communicate! Talk! Then the more I thought about it over a long period of time, the more it made sense to me that our brains might have mostly evolved large sizes to socialize, etc. So, I got lucky. At least, if Dunning and now others are correct.

      • prairienymph says:

        I remember hearing about those hunting theories of brain development too. The part that got me was not all the other animals that hunted in large groups had great grey matter capacity, like sharks. Animals that were more intelligent, like elephants and dolphins, all seemed to have a long childhoods with lots of interactive parenting. And reading books like _The Boy Who Was a Dog_ showed that ‘mothering’ and nurturing young children directly affected their development. When studying depression I found that the children of mothers who had (untreated) postpartum depression had significantly lower grades and greater behaviour problems later on in life. Not inevitable, but a significant correlation.

        I’ve also heard theories about apes becoming less arboreal and more bipedal because the males had to carry food to the females in exchange for sex. Not suprisingly this hunting for sex theory was from a male biased scientist. Why not a parenting theory? Parents could care better for more and more helpless infants if they could use their hands and still move around.

        I wonder how science will change with people like Dunning and more mothers getting involved.

  5. Talking about people (or even talking about ourselves) can be a way of looking for what’s common or even universal in human nature — that is, a way of looking for things we can all related to.

    In the small town I grew up in, there was a peculiar way gossip was sometimes used to inoffensively debate ideas. For instance: Jane and Richard might use gossip to discuss their views of abortion while thus avoiding a direct confrontation. I once witnessed such a thing.

    “Jane”, who was pro-choice, began by telling the story of an underage girl who got pregnant out of wedlock, wanted an abortion, but was instead forced into a hasty marriage with the underage kid who got her pregnant. Jane mentioned that the couple were now miserable.

    “Richard”, who was anti-abortion, then told a story of another girl who had wanted an abortion and gotten married instead. He then mentioned that he’d seen her the other day and she was happy as could be with her six year old — who would have been aborted.

    The two went back and forth like that until they ran out of stories. Then they dropped the matter with no hard feelings between them. Not once during the entire exchange did either person risk making a straightforward statement of where she or he stood on the issue.

    I used to see that sort of thing a lot in the small town I grew up in.

  6. […] From “Great Minds”, posted on Prairie Nymph — Enjoying Metamorphosis, by Prairie N…. […]

  7. Cujo359 says:

    “I began to question the validity of my childhood mantra as I realized that most of the intelligent, compassionate, interesting people I knew liked to talk about people. And they knew what was going on in the world around them.”

    It took quite awhile, but I did, too. It’s hard to say why, exactly, other than as I’ve grown older, I’ve found human actions and motivations a lot more interesting, and meaningful. They probably explain far more of what happens in the world than I’m willing to admit, even now.

    • prairienymph says:

      Hello Cujo and welcome. I think most of us, myself very much included, are rather ignorant of our own actions and motivations. I wonder how life would change if we were more aware of that.

  8. II heard the same quote in my formative years, and similar condemnations in church about gossip. Tied to what seems to be a natural inclination for shyness, I found, and still find, small talk and relationship building a challenge. It’s been an awkward learning process, but I have come to realize that talking about people is not so bad, and even can be beneficial when done right.

    But I think that the original quote is still true in some respects. It is difficult to change the world for the better by simply talking about other people to other people, so it is difficult to be recognized by the world as great. However, when it comes to a rich life, when it comes to a strong community, when it comes to a close and loving family, then “great” takes on an entirely different meaning and your phrasing is definitely more accurate. 🙂

    • prairienymph says:

      I am trying to apply this to ideas too, not just people. I was taught that if I parroted the ‘right’ ideas then my mind would automatically be stronger- that memorizing the bible and church teachings would give us all the wisdom we needed. Meaning, I was not to question, criticize or explore anything on my own but I could debate theology all I wanted. It didn’t really change much around me except narrow my social group and keep me from other life-changing ideas such as the much feared feminist call for equality. I was thinking about ideas, but only as a puppet.

      The definition of ‘great’ is something important that you touch on. I think having so many funerals lately has changed my mind on what is ‘great’. I’d like to validate my existence with awards and recognition of achievement. Those aren’t bad, but they are hardly sufficient. Deepak Chopra is supposed to have said that the way to world peace is to make a friend. Maybe there is more to that.

      Small talk is still difficult 🙂

  9. I think a lot of the whole “talking about people is small-minded and not important” attitude is just plain sexism. Women are supposedly more likely to “gossip,” after all.

    Personally, I like knowing what’s going on in the lives of people I love and care about. That’s part of why I do facebook at all, and it’s why I pushed my parents to join–we know what’s going in each other’s lives. I know my mom loves to find out what Shawn and I are doing on our trip.

    You can’t talk about ideas all the time anyway. Sheesh.

    • prairienymph says:

      I think that is exactly part of it! Gossip is termed a woman’s disease, although in my small town it was the old men sitting in front of the Co-Op who were the worst 🙂
      Also, people who can only talk about abstract ideas have poor social skills. A large chunk of their brains are not as active as those who are socially adept.

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