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A Call for Genius


“Turn it off.  Turn it all off.”

In my last post I quoted Abigail Adams, who wrote to John Quincy in 1780 that “These are times in which a genius would wish to live.” I am hoping that our own times will evoke genius.

But what is it anyway? Several years ago, I was assisting with a gardening class for elementary school students when I heard a memorable explanation. We were on the beautiful grounds of an historic home in Santa Fe, and the teacher was encouraging the students to pay close attention to the way we were preparing the beds to plant garlic and onions. To reinforce the importance of paying attention, she said that Albert Einstein himself had equated genius with nothing more than acute powers of observation.

When I searched for the quote, I couldn’t find it. However, I did find one by William James that I also like: “Genius . . .means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.” This interpretation suggests universal access, and that would certainly be helpful now. The problem is that it does require a commitment to observation, and we are all so distracted these days, accessing so many means of escaping reality–technology, drugs both pharmaceutical and recreational, alcohol, entertainment, etc.–that we may not be able to rise to the challenge of the moment.

My main concern is the way we are getting out of touch with the natural world, and I have a marker question for all of us: If all the birds on the earth perished overnight, how long would it take you to know? Would you note a deserted feeder in your garden? Would you miss the pigeons on their customary perch on your way to work? When you emerged from your car into the open air, would silence make your hair prickle? Would you be oblivious until the evening news? How much would it matter when you did know?

I wrote earlier (see “Moon Thoughts” in March) about the theory that it was early man’s acute observation of the cycles of the moon that led to an understanding of time and eventually the capacity for rational and abstract thought. When you stop and think about it, all the manifestations of genius, as in science, art, literature, music, medicine, and even commerce, seem to spring from acute powers of observation emanating from one or more of the five senses. It would be an interesting exercise to follow the trail to discover how often nature has been the impetus for the ideas and creativity in these areas that enabled us to evolve.

Unfortunately, we are becoming more and more estranged from the world that has always been our intellectual and artistic mentor. We are like students of enormous potential losing a master teacher untimely.

Even a horse can be a great teacher. I’m thinking about the movie “Buck,” a documentary about the horse whisperer Buck Brannaman. Buck’s upbringing endowed him with special compassion for horses, which have traditionally been broken through violence and intimidation. The ease, speed and gentleness with which he trains even difficult animals suggests a genius at work. The source is undoubtedly acute observation–of every move, every breath, every shift in attention, every ripple of energy, and even the distinctive and responding scent of every animal.

Buck is a healer in a way, and all great healers are probably informed in similar fashion. They may not even know how they are special, but it may have has less to do with mastery of any pharmacopeia than brilliant analysis of the patient’s psyche, symptoms, and anatomy, whether human or animal.

And finally, my point. I think that the genius this era requires is a healing genius. Perhaps much of the dysfunction we are seeing in society has to do with losing touch with our great teacher and refuge, the natural world. Troubled and unwell, it is in urgent need of our healing attention.

Perhaps things will begin to change for the better if all of us take time each day to pay attention to the birds, the bugs, and the sky. The more we do, the more likely we are to activate the powers of observation that can ignite genius. So here is the bumper sticker I would like to propose as a universal reminder: “Turn it off. Turn it all off.”

Just for a little while.



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