Ideas that escape from our heads

It is weeks like this past week when I wonder how anyone communicates anything to anyone else on the planet.

We humans use language to give format to ideas. When I have an idea, I imagine that thought filtering down through the Rube-Goldberg device that is my mind. And as some other part of me watches the idea travel, I am struck by the effort it takes for that thought to transform into words, leave my body, and pass to some other human.

For an idea to have a life outside my own mind, I have to say it out loud, or write it down, perform it (flail wildly until someone notices). To think of communication that way- that each idea you want to share means you must consciously send it through an obstacle course in order for it to connect with another person… it’s exhausting, right? A fucking hassle, you know?

(Hey scientists, so where is the adapter that allows me to plug directly into another human and exchange ideas, feelings, and information without the need for language?)

But I have a deep love of words and semantics. And while I’ve made it my livelihood, I often feel overwhelmed by the inaccuracy of language. Its nature is <em>approximate</em>. It fails us at a most basic level. Words escape and miss their mark: their sequencing, the exact choice of them, the tone or media they are delivered in, the frame of reference of the people listening. So much is working against us, and still, we manage to connect.

So our ideas are born and we jettison them into the larger world outside ourselves. Except that the second they escape from our heads, the instant the idea is articulated in language, the instant the idea is committed to a medium, two things happen. One: the idea continues to evolve inside your head, even though you sent it out into the larger world. The “pure” form of your original idea only stays in your head for a moment until you begin editorializing and morphing and growing it. (e.g., the poem you constantly revise in your head forever and ever.) Two: now that this external idea has a life of its own, anyone who receives it will put their own spin on it. They now own a version of it, a riff on it. When they in turn spread the idea, they are now explaining it in their own words, and they are giving it new dimension, new consequence.

The really interesting thing here is that the more powerful or influential an idea is, the more people will want to share it. And the more people that share it, the more times that idea is re-articulated. And the more times that idea is re-articulated, the more it is growing, evolving, and shifting its identity. So you could say that the most spellbinding ideas are also the most changeable – those that have been the most tampered with from their first essential and pure state. They are the furthest from the original draft.

That’s really something isn’t it? To think that the ideas we are drawn to most passionately are the ones that change most profoundly.  Ideas we cull from everywhere and everyone in the world: be it novels, newscasts, or meeting notes-  those ideas change in direct proportion to the number of people listening, re-articulating and then spreading them.

Tilting toward open

I’ve been keeping a list. In a memo file on my phone. It’s a list of brief writing prompts, sketches of memory, ideas, snippets of conversation. They’re the digital version of me carrying around a tiny notepad in my shirt pocket. Some days when I glance over the list, the prompts and pieces are very compelling and interesting. Other days I wonder why I even bothered committing the blips to type. And at yet other times, these notes suddenly feel very embarrassing, revealing.

Yesterday I listened to Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability. I was stunned by it. Mopped tears off my face. At my desk. In my office. (I recovered quickly). When we point at and shed light on the things that bring us shame, what does that exercise do? Is it inherently therapeutic? Is there any real benefit to examining the painful stuff? Here Meg, go do all this difficult soul searching and self-examination and then come back and see if you are a better person for it. Or do you just come out the other side  all raw, cracked open, and chafed?

This little list has made me think a lot about what topics I am uncomfortable writing or thinking about in any detail. They recall the painful, mostly awkward or difficult situations or bits of history that make me flinch when I think about committing them to writing, reliving them, rehashing them. I ask myself whether or not it would be psychologically productive or useful in any way to tread that ground. Would the act of writing those things down in and of themselves make me progress or grow in some way? Would it throw me into the big sad? Or would it be redemptive– where to see it on the page would finally allow me to reclaim it, re-contextualize it, make it mine in a way that subtracts the shame?

There are way more questions than answers. Do people shy away from these types of exercises because they could potentially destroy what semblance of compartmentalization and denial they have been able to achieve so far? What gets people through their days and weeks and years? What allows them to continue working in jobs they mostly despise, or deal with difficult circumstances over which they have no control? In most circumstances, I am the person who wears my heart on my sleeve, who takes vulnerability to an extreme. It must be hardwired in me, because in the past I haven’t been rewarded for that kind of behavior. In fact, there have been so many counterexamples where had I been just a bit more self-protective, I would have fared far better. But sometimes I use my vulnerability to good effect: to draw people closer, invite them in, seduce them (in the broadest of terms). That aspect of my personality helps me influence and spread ideas.

So here I am, still operating in that same way, still hoping for the best outcome. So what makes us tilt toward open or toward closed? Whichever way we lean, we learn ways to use that proclivity as a tool to navigate our social world.