Letter from South America

Dear Bob,
My brother and his family were visiting Greece these past days. They went to Athens, and then from there they sailed to the islands of Santorini and Mykonos. What a wonderful trip! My 12 year-old niece loves mythology and knows a little bit about philosophers so they really enjoyed seeing all the classical sites and museums (besides enjoying wonderful wine, food and views of course). The first picture my brother sent was the front view of the Parthenon. He pointed out that the one sculpture remaining in the pendant of the actual building is that of Dionysius. As my mother loves wine he joked: “after 2500 years, Dionysius is the only survivor!” However, the Dionysius they found in a museum had only half face, no neck, torso, neither arms nor legs, and only one hand holding a glass. Here he said: “ Well, here only the glass survived!”  (Perhaps he drank in excess – haha).  But not everything was about humor, pictures, restaurants, museums, or being a tourist. He told us that being there gives you a natural motivation to think about thinking… nice. Traveling and thinking about thinking sounds like a good life; feeling that you are really alive. I don’t have the money to travel to Greece but it is my consolation to think that going back to the Greeks and thinking about what they said is as good as travelling there (this is half joke, half serious).
Today is Sunday and on Sundays I rest as most. On Sundays I have time to do laundry, to plan my week, to go for a long bike ride, to think. I sit down or lay down here on the sofa sometimes, staring at the window, the blue sky and the cloud formation, listening to the birds and feeling the breeze. I need to use this time I have to think, to learn something, to make my mind a better mind, to clear it so I have some insight about something. But how do I do that. I read good stuff, I download some podcast and then I think about it, I think about what bothers me, my never ending ruminating, my feelings. However, sometimes I think I don’t make any progress and my mind is still not very clear, not very clever. The Greeks said that before trying to learn something new we need to know ourselves: ‘Know Thyself’. Know my self sounds wise, but if the self is just an artifice, an illusion, what exactly am I to get to know?  If I analyze my thoughts or my actions, then I interpret them, I go on and on with analysis: labeling something good or bad, convenient, undesirable, mistaken, well done, etc. But I do not think the Greeks meant such a methodology could lead to self-knowledge. All right, let me go back: If we accept that self is not an entity to be known, we surely can accept that mind is, just because mind simply exists. OK, I need to understand mind. That requires knowledge in philosophy, psychology, neurology, and more. Wow, that is a lot of studying! But surely the Greek saying was meant for everyone as a practical motto relating to living a good life, not an academic endeavor, so not only experts could achieve the goal. It has to be hard but not so hard; one hopes!
Know thyself: knowledge of my own self, an exploration of my own self to find something true about its nature, its workings.  My mind is something amazing. My work is done thanks to my mind’s prodigious processing capacity. Has it happened to you that sometimes your brain corrects some mistake it has made WAY AFTER the fact and when not even thinking about the fact (which is what I find amazing)?
I remember when I was working for a telecommunications shop in Canada; I was always very worried about doing things correctly.  My job was repairing radio equipment for loggers. When a radio fails and you are in the middle of the forest, it can be trouble, so I was very keen on doing a good job. One afternoon I had repaired a radio and the client had picked it up and left satisfied. That night I woke up at midnight with the thought that I hadn’t installed a small protection component. Next day I called the client who came back to have his equipment re-checked. I had not, in fact, installed that component. My brain told me in my dream what I had forgotten while doing the job. Fantastic! But my brain is also very annoying! The ever present chatting, rumination, story making and the feelings all those thoughts give me drive me crazy. I have explored meditation in order to be more focused and to stop the chatting, and although I have not had success in adopting the practice, I think it definitely works. I am wondering now how meditation could relate to knowing myself. Here, then, is something to explore. I have to try to retake the practice first.  Despite my not understanding how to go about knowing myself, I surely believe it is fundamental.
Well, it is 6 pm, no more time for thinking. It is time for drinking. No more Socrates but Dionysus! Until next time.


7 thoughts on “Letter from South America

  1. Thanks for this letter, Laura. I enjoy reading your monthly letters and always learn from them. Since I just finished reading and reviewing a book on Thomas Szasz what you write about the mind is still floating in mine!

    You write: If we accept that self is not an entity to be known, we surely can accept that mind is, just because mind simply exists. One of the quotes from Szasz that sticks in my mind is “People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates.” – probably because I have argued before that the ‘self’ is constantly being created by doing stuff. {I now notice all of the metaphoric language employed in what I have tried to say so far!}

    So my mind is now wondering about ‘mind’ – what is a mind? A brain? Or is ‘mind’ the word we use to refer to what the brain is doing? Is mind a thing or a process? I hope that there are ‘other minds’ among our readership who can help with these questions!


    • Very interesting Bob! I wonder if he thought even schizophrenia was not a mental illness. But I like the claim that we have ‘problems in living’ instead. When I was a kid I had imaginary friends and I played, talked to them etc. Later in life I heard that it’s a healthy sign for kids to have imaginary friends. They were good company and comforted me. Is perhaps God the imaginary friend of the adult mind? At the begining of your review you quoted “If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; if God talks to you, you are a schizophrenic.” I wonder what he means. Spirits, gods, imaginary friends seem to be in the same cathegory.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find that everyone has difficulty with words like “mind” “soul” “spirit” because they are organically ambiguous!

    And thanks for the link to the review.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The “talks to you” quote is usually as follows:
    “If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.
    If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If God talks to you, you are a schizophrenic.”

    I take it that Szasz is pointing out the inconsistency in our attitude toward the same phenomenon when it is named differently. The main points Szasz makes are:

    Psychoanalysis is a moral dialog, not a medical treatment.
    Emotional and psychological symptoms do not reflect diseases of the brain and, therefore, are not indicators of mental illness.
    Involuntary psychiatric intervention is likened to imprisonment and is unethical and immoral.
    Suicide is an issue of personal responsibility rather than organizational liability. It is an act of choice, not a reflection of disease.
    The general public believes that if all human problems are defined as symptoms of disease, they become maladies remediable by medical measures and are easily resolved.
    Child molestation, domestic violence and many other abhorrent behaviors are crimes, not sicknesses.
    Separation of medicine and the state is necessary for the protection and promotion of individual liberty, responsibility and dignity.
    In many ways public health projects have the potential to impact many lives, but guarantee little to each individual.

    If you want to read his controversial book go here.


  4. One of the many parts of Szasz’s argument against naming certain conditions “mental illness” is the observation that diseases are present in cadavers but when you try to find a mental illness in a cadaver you cannot.


  5. Pingback: Thank You! | Episyllogism

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