Editor’s Note: Due to my ability to type really fast, one of my first jobs was to use the Dictaphone at my dad’s office to type information dictated by the psychiatrists. I would use my foot to press the peddle that played the tape and type along as they spoke. I typed letters to consulting physicians and articles they wrote for publications. I remember being surprised at my dad’s vast vocabulary. He certainly didn’t use those fancy words in the office or at home. When I discussed this perplexing issue with my dad, I learned two lessons that have stuck with me my entire life. 1) Don’t use a dollar word when a dime one will do. 2) Know your audience and communicate in the language they speak. One of our running family quotes is part of this blog post: “Doc, he was so smart I didn’t understand a word he said.”
THE SMARTEST GUY
My Grandson gave me an interesting book for Christmas. This is not a book review so the title is not important. Suffice it to say, it has to do with some theological issues which he and I had discussed in the past, and in particular a “doubting Thomas” streak owned by me. There was much food for thought, some of which was not very digestible.
The author was obviously well read as there were 53 pages of references cited. It was well written; although I found some of the reasoning a bit convoluted. It was a tedious read for me, but I must confess that I also have trouble deciphering the Bible. All of the quotes the author offered throughout the book often added to my confusion. I am sure those guys are all very famous; however I had never heard of most of them. The author would make his point then throw in a “in the words of……….” which was not nearly as coherent as his original statement. Perhaps he was only paying homage to the experts in his field, but I was impressed that he must be a speed reader to have read all that stuff. I was also surprised to learn that Christianity could be so complicated.
As I read the book, I was reminded of an experience from many years ago. I was seeing a patient for the first time. His was a chronic, although not disabling condition, which had been exacerbated by the unexpected death of his psychiatrist. He talked warmly of his feelings for the deceased, and shared that he missed his counsel. He also spoke of his respect for the man’s intelligence with: “Dr………. was the smartest man I ever knew. He was so smart that when he said something I couldn’t understand a word he said.”
Now all these years later, I can identify with this patient’s assessment of the good doctor’s intelligence for some of the guys quoted in the aforementioned book were much too smart for me to understand. You may be thinking that the alternate explanation might be that I am too stupid to understand, a conclusion that I am loath to accept. After all, I did manage to limp through 24 years of school even though my scholastic career was admittedly undistinguished. My mother proudly said that I knew my ABCs, and could count to 100 by the time I entered the first grade. I have a vivid memory of my father showing my third grade report card to everyone in Varner’s store who would look. Even though this was the first and last time he would be able to exhibit a report card with all A’s, I feel it should count for something.
There is the possibility of another less flattering explanation, which could help explain the comprehension problem. I have a friend whom I have always admired for his scholarship. His writings demonstrate a vast knowledge of classical literature, history, philosophy and classical music. He is also a veritable expert in psychoanalytic theory. His writings make use of metaphor and relevant quotes. Imagine my surprise when in my confessions of envy for his use of all this knowledge in his writings, his wife responded, “I think it is just showing off.” Perhaps she was having a bad day or he had forgotten to take out the trash, for she has shown her love for him in many ways during the many years they have been together.
The comment by my friend’s spouse does raise the question as to whether our writings are often more about ourselves than the subject about which we are writing. Could it be that sometimes the message intended may be corrupted by our ego needs? How much of the motivation of this author’s writings were motivated by a need to “show off”? For that matter does that same dynamic have anything to do with my writing of this paper. I have often said in jest that I would like to be rich and famous. Since the former has escaped me, perhaps I am still holding out for the latter. But then I have also had fantasies of winning the $1.5 billion power ball thing; even though I have never bought a ticket.
When I was a kid we sometimes perpetrated cruel party jokes designed to humiliate and embarrass. One such stunt involved telling a joke with a nonsense punch line. The group who was in on the joke would laugh loudly, and the butt of the joke would join in the laughter even though there was nothing remotely funny. We called such tactics “shaggy dog stories.” I must admit there are times when I feel I have nodded in agreement with someone when I had no idea what they were talking about, much as the patient who idolized his dead psychiatrist must have done.
There are times when reading something that is clearly beyond my abilities to grasp, I wonder if I am the victim of a shaggy dog story, and that the author is having a good laugh at my expense. The most recent example is my attempt to wade through a book on quantum mechanics. I was humbled by my inability to make any sense of that stuff. Upon learning that the book was written for ordinary people like myself left my ego was left in shreds. This was not Greek to me. It was more like a mixture of Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Apache indian. What I could decipher was so implausible that I found myself thinking “can this person be serious?” and again wondering if this was not a variation on the shaggy dog theme.
It has been said the best defense against Alzheimer’s and similar dementias is to make liberal use one’s brain. All intellectual pursuits are encouraged, but I have noted that this can clearly be overdone. I submit that a brain can also become fatigued; consequently, I will now put down my book on particle physics, fire up my kindle, and escape to a mindless mystery novel.