The Lost Art Of Mental Rigor


One afternoon last week, I sat in the living room of my father’s best friend, looking out at Lake Michigan from the penthouse floor. It was the four of us, my father’s great and lifelong friend (and schoolmate from the University of Chicago, where they both earned earned political science PhDs), his wife, an accomplished academic in her own right, my husband and myself, and we spent two of the most glorious hours talking — about Dr. Hamilton’s life and career (which intersected with my fathers as if they were the rhythm sections in each others’ bands), about his wife, the other Dr. Hamilton’s career, about their daughter and my father, who have both gone on to the great beyond, his daughter having left us in the plane crash that also took the life of Ron Brown, and my own father having lived to the ripe old age of 80, about the losses that shape a life and also the gains. It was cerebral and emotional and connected in a way that conversation so rarely is these days. It was a great reminder of how lucky we are when we have an opportunity to commune deeply with our minds and hearts engaged.

Dr. Hamilton and my father had the rarest of friendships. They were great admirers of one another, as human beings and as grand intellects who shared a deep commitment to social justice (they both played significant roles in the Civil Rights movement and in racial justice and human rights in the years beyond). Hearing him speak of my father with such love (and later hearing of my father’s great love for him from my stepmother), I was reminded of the proper role of the intellect in both public and private life. It is a lost art, this routine almost ordinary use of the mind through which we engage the big and meaningful ideas that turn our world.

I thought of those hours in Chicago when, upon my return to La La Land, where some of us work as hard as we can to pretend that nothing real matters, I turned on the telly and watched a couple of episodes of Showtime’s excellent if poorly titled series on global warming, The Years of Living Dangerously (you know a title’s a poor one when you can’t remember it to save your life). There I saw deeply beautiful Christian evangelists, some of whom could only figure that the drought that hit Texas and took their jobs was “biblical” and others of whom were inimical to the idea that global warming is real. Only when they heard the message from an evangelical climate scientist in one case, and a scientist who was himself a former climate change denier in the other, were they able to hear the obvious logic that confirms that climate change is indeed real and that it’s man-made. What has happened to us that we can no longer talk to each other across difference? That we can no longer hear the truth unless it comes in a package we like?

I thought again of this dearth in intellectual engagement while listening in not the conversation (at The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, etc — and at the Daily Targum, where a Rutgers student started it all) about “trigger warnings.” If you’re just catching up with the nonsense, this whole trigger warning business originated with students at various colleges (Rutgers, Oberlin, UC Santa Barbara, to name a few) who felt that professors should be required to provide trigger warnings any time they assign material that might upset students or trigger their PTSD, such as material that includes rape, suicide, racism, sexism, ableism, cisgenderism (bias in favor of those born to the gender they inhabit), colonialism and the list goes on and on. Mind you, I know from PTSD and have great compassion for its sufferers, among which I count myself, but this is just nonsense. Life doesn’t have trigger warnings and neither should our intellectual pursuits. When you pursue higher education, the very thing you should be in pursuit of is ideas and experiences that upset and, yes, even trigger you — and if it triggers you so badly that you need mental health care, you should get it, but the whole world shouldn’t be asked to stop for you. The value of education lies precisely in its ability to shake us from our mooring, to open our eyes to ideas and experience that we heretofore may have been blind to. And if we are not blind to those experiences, because we have suffered them ourselves, encountering them — in literature, in academic texts, in works of visual art — still has immeasurable value. When we encounter the human experience as it is — filled with great tragedy and also with the potential for and occasional actuality of great joy — we are deepened, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. We learn that we are not alone in our suffering and this comforts us or enrages us or both in equal measure. We learn the specificity of other human beings’ suffering and this deepens our compassion for those who suffer things we cannot imagine. We come to think anew about old things, to think with a broadened perspective and an exercised mind. We develop a rigor, without which we cannot contribute our measure in this life.

In the past few decades, we’ve witnessed a retreat from reason and rigor in public life. It’s in the Tea Party and its even trickled its way up to The Supreme Court, where partisanship substitutes for reason and Constitutional analysis as often as not. We are the weaker for it.

There was a day — some of you may remember it; it is not too distantly past — when the Left and the Right disagreed, but each mounted arguments that were logically reasoned and based on premises that were factual if not always correct. Now people argue that Creationism is a science that deserves a hearing in our classrooms that is equal to that accorded the actual science of Evolution. The examples of anti-intellectualism (or just plain tom-foolery, because, honestly, come the f___ on) are legion, but I’ll leave it at that, and at global warming denying, because come the f___ on.

What we lose when we abandon reason and rigor is the opportunity to create the next great moment in human history. Anti-intellectualism is an understandable fear response, but it won’t serve us well in the end. We’re gonna have to think (and feel) our way forward. We’re going to have to conquer the impulses of our amygdala’s fight or flight response and sink into the deep capacities of our neocortex, with which we can think our way beyond fear and into possibility.

Global warming is here. The unsquelchable conflicts between those who have prospered, and those who have paid the bill, are here. All the poisoned fruits of our poisoned endeavors have ripened and are dropping, full, from the vine. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner and the way forward is with rigor and with heart. We must think now about what this world might be, and how we can get there. The old ways won’t do. Now is the time to think up new ones.

Consider this: Intellectualism isn’t only for “the liberal East Coast elite.” That’s what I learned from the climate scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe on The Years of Living Dangerously. She is rigorous. She is a woman of science and a woman of faith. She is a woman who knows how to talk across difference, having hashed it out over climate change with her evangelical Christian minister husband, himself a former climate change denier. She is living proof that thinking deeply is for everyone, and that we prosper when we drop the partisan pretenses that relegate some of us to a ghetto where folklore holds reins. Humankind has come to far for us to retreat into ignorance now.

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PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.

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