“Ninety percent of what I hear on television is supposition, when we’re talking about the news. And he’s [George H.W. Bush] not as understanding of my pettiness about that. But why should we hear about body bags, and deaths, and how many, what day it’s gonna happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that? And watch him [George W. Bush] suffer.”
Barbara Bush, Good Morning America, March 18, 2003
For years former First Lady, Barbara Bush, has been unfairly maligned for the above quote, mostly taken out of context. She seems to be objecting to the endless supposition, as she says, the speculation we see so much of these days on cable news. She doesn’t seem unwilling to consider the facts of body bags, and deaths, and like any mother she doesn't want to see her son suffer.
I admit to being perplexed when I first heard the quote, and I began to ponder this idea of “the beautiful mind” and what it essentially means. First, let’s consider two extremes: a person who has experienced the worst atrocities war can produce, and a person with the same relative naivety. There is also the experience of being exposed to these states of being, not directly, but through some other medium, such as a story, video, or simply in one’s imagination.
Throughout human history people have suffered horribly. I need not be explicit without each of you conjuring your worst nightmarish historical scenario. Yet we’re limited by our experience. We don’t know what we don’t know. People who have personally experienced great suffering have something like an imprint on their being. They can experience PTSD for years, if not a lifetime. If catastrophic events happen at an early enough age, those events can affect the mind to such an extent the person is almost powerless to stop or alter the effect the destructive event has on subsequent behavior, on the physical body, and ultimately on the ability to cope with the violence. If one is older, perhaps there are counter experiences one can use to mitigate the effect, to allow the event to have less of an impact. Everyone’s different, of course, and there doesn’t seem to be a cure for bad experiences. It reminds me of Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, examining the premise it is possible to erase memories, implying humans have long contemplated the desire to return to something like a blank slate. I’ve known war veterans who would very much like to forget what they experienced. Some try very hard to do so but inevitably the repressed violence experienced by the psyche becomes problematic. Many people become self-destructive.
Plato, in The Republic, advises censorship to preserve the utopian society he envisions. For a society to flourish the government must suppress art, which is frequently contrarian and espouses destructive ideas, and the government may lie to the population if that will maintain the well-being of society. I think many governments do that today, quite frankly, but that philosophy isn’t conducive to maintaining a democracy. Although, it must be obvious that even voters in a democracy elect leaders who may learn of uncomfortable truths they feel are not necessary to reveal to the population at large. I suspect part of the population wouldn’t want to know the truth if that knowledge adversely affects the practical day to day experience of simply wanting to get through life as easily as possible. Ignorance is bliss.
In the film, Being There, a naïve man leaves a house in which he’s been sheltered his entire life as the gardener, with only a television to reveal the world. The more cynical characters in Washington D.C. take his simple view of life as wisdom. Peter Sellers plays the man as inherently blissful; he’s not aware, apparently, of the horrors humans have inflicted on each other, except what he's seen on television. In a sense he represents every human who has been living in a protected bubble, a bubble made of financial security more often than not, who when encountering the real world for the first time will exhibit initially a kind of optimism. That type of character was most recently explored in Blast From The Past, with Brendon Fraser. The premise is the basis for the Buddhist religion. Sheltered Siddhartha goes into the word and determines life is suffering. The idea of innocent in the world was also iconically introduced in Voltaire’s Candide. Although Candide’s ultimate disillusionment is not necessarily echoed later by the character, Chance, in Being There, who nevertheless stresses the importance of “cultivating the garden,” and, in fact, ends up walking on water. If the garden is a metaphor for the mind, that must be cultivated, it implies work is necessary to maintain a beautiful mind.
That metaphor has been used often, especially by the English, who love their gardens, but it implies a mind must be strong enough to make the determination about what gets planted and what gets eradicated and what must be nurtured. Think of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden which is all but dead from grief and a kind of insanity, but is brought back to life through love, and the effort of rising above the pettiness of normal life, interestingly by a girl raised in an imperialistic environment. She gains awareness and others do because of her journey. There is a faint echo of Don Quixote, but the underlying message in that work, that you can change your reality and the reality of those around you, by believing very strongly about it and acting upon it, again, depends on a strong mind to determine what affects you.
Ultimately I question the morality of wishing to remain ignorant of the suffering of others, especially if that suffering is caused to some degree by the actions of the country of which I am a citizen. Part of our journey as human beings must be the development of empathy and that cannot happen if we are callous to the pain we are indirectly causing others. We cannot develop it if we are invested in creating a reality for ourselves that does not admit to a certain amount of culpability in the actions of our government. This is a democracy, after all.
Nevertheless, I also recognize the right we all have as human beings to individually shape our consciousness to the best of our abilities, to tend to our gardens, to conform the details of our thoughts to our aesthetic. If we have not personally experienced profound pain, how much attention should we give the idea that others have suffered? What should we invest in knowledge that is learned as opposed to experienced? Between brutal personal suffering and ignorant bliss there is an infinite grey area where each of us stakes a claim to our garden.
We work very hard to tend our gardens in complicated ways, and part of that is choosing not to participate or to be a witness to things we can seek out in life and on the internet, where suffering and death are only a click away. Those who have jobs which expose them to suffering usually develop a cynical shell that protects them from some of the destructive information, the gory wrecks, the murders, the plaintiffs and the politicians. The betrayal of innocence affects many the hardest, cruelty to children or to animals. Perhaps it's because we revere innocence. We were all innocent once before life began chipping away at our perfect world. It’s obvious why so many of us want to return there.
The dramatist Antonin Artaud, famous for the Theatre of Cruelty, was committed to an asylum several times. Some have said he had a condition which did not allow him to filter the sensory information he received. We filter quite a lot, actually. We couldn’t be productive if we didn’t have the ability to focus on a task and complete it. That focus requires the suppression of a lot of stimuli. In a world awash in information, a jungle of conflicting branches of growth that threatens to overcome us, it might be wise to consider our efforts should not be focused so much on creating the beautiful, which is in the eye of the beholder, but on creating the meaningful, which would be a recognition of the reality of ugliness, pain and suffering that exists just outside our perfect gardens.
Recognize it but don't let it rule your thoughts. The Buddha said, "The Mind is everything. What you think you become." Jesus Christ said, "For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?" The Holy Quran says, "“O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace (Islam)." Finally, in Proverbs, "By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established, through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures."