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Thinkers Anonymous

by Peter Volpe

 

Illustration of French sculptor Auguste Rodin's 'The Thinker'
 


Peter says: I have a Ph.D. in Political Science from Duke University. I have published op-ed pieces in The Raleigh News & Observer and The Durham Herald Sun on various topics (e.g., the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the war in Iraq, economic policy vis--vis China and Russia). But my true love is fiction, and it was not until recently that I discovered this. My first short story, “Three People Dancing,” will be published in the summer issue of The Zodiac Review. Currently, I am working on a novel. 


George Eliot Ream sat in the waiting room, crossing and uncrossing his legs. A large, pasty-faced woman waddled out from behind a closed door.

“Doctor’s ready for ya.”

 She led George down a long, carpeted hallway and knocked at the last door on the left. From the other side a voice mumbled. The woman wrenched open the door.

George glanced around the room. A glass and iron coffee table rested in front of a plum leather sofa and a recliner. Dark bookcases crammed with books and manila folders hugged the walls.

Doctor Eider rose from behind his cluttered desk. He was graying and a bit on the corpulent side.

“Welcome, Jim, welcome,” he said, warmly shaking George’s hand.

“George,” George corrected.

“Richard,” Eider said, pointing to himself

“No, I mean I’m George.”

“Oh, why, yes of course. Sorry. Have a seat,” Eider said motioning to the couch and the recliner.

George chose the couch, promising himself that under no circumstances would he lie down.

During their brief exchange, George had become aware the doctor’s teeth had been replaced with falsies. In the few words he’d spoken, Eider’s jaws worked overtime. Seeing him talk was like watching a dubbed foreign movie.

Eider plopped down in the recliner. He pulled out a legal pad, then some paperwork stuck in the space next to the arm of the chair. “As I see from your intake form,” Eider began, “you are well educated, a smart young man, a Ph.D. in Philosophy—that’s a bit redundant. You taught at the university. You’ve been married, divorced, worked at a place called . . .”

“Crucial Information, Inc.,” George said.

“Yes, yes, Crucial Information. And what did you do there?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Okay, good,” Eider said, scribbling furiously on the legal pad. “What type of information did the company provide?”

“I never figured that out. It’s why I quit.”

“I see.”  

The doctor put down the pad. “It seems your life is in flux.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Flux, your life . . . flux.”

“And how,” George said.

“I’m beginning to see the problem. I’ve thought about this a lot since reviewing your paperwork. I think your trouble is you have an overactive mind.” Eider stood up and went over to his desk. He returned with a stack of laminated sheets, about the size of notebook paper. “I assume you’ve heard of the Rorschach test. I’d like you to look at the cards and tell me what you see.”

Eider held up the first one. George looked at it for a moment, then said, “The Hegelian dialectic.”

“That one reminds me of materialism,” George said, when Eider held up the next.

“Interesting.”

“Nihilism,” George said, when Eider showed him the third. “This is kind of fun.”

“Okay, now we’re getting someplace. Everything reminds you of philosophy; you are obsessed with philosophy; it’s all you think about. I’ve administered this test to all my clients; neither interpreted the cards the way you did. Fascinating.” Eider furrowed his abundant brows. “I think your problem, George, is that you think too much.”

            “You think so?”

            “Yes. There is a whole library of research that explores your illness.”

            “So, you’re saying I’m not alone? My condition is common?”

            “Well, yes and no. Throughout history a mental illness like yours, what I like to call ‘overabundant cerebral activity’—OCA for short—has occurred at certain times in certain places. Painstaking research, heavily subsidized by the government, and conducted by anyone able to sign his name on a grant proposal, has identified these periods as follows: Ancient Egypt and Greece, the early Roman Empire, the Italian city-states during the Renaissance, the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, and Western Europe during the eighteenth century. The last time this condition manifested itself was the nineteenth century, mostly in Germany and Russia. By the beginning of the twentieth century it had been largely eradicated.”

            “Wait a minute, Doctor, the times and places you mentioned correspond with tremendous achievements in philosophy, art, literature, and science. How can they be periods of widespread mental illness?”

            “I’m not saying that some interesting things didn’t occur. But what’s reassuring is the history of the twentieth century shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that OCA is no longer a pandemic. Present-day society is characterized by a disdain toward deep thinking—toward any kind of thinking, really. And today nearly all the countries in the world want to be like us, the country that, through the opposite of deep thought—namely, complete mindlessness—has rocketed to the top of the global scrap heap. In this country all the conditions for not thinking are ripe: there is little history, no real culture, literature, or art, only the shallowest of tendencies. What do we have? Fast food and reality television. And coupled with this mindlessness is the notion that it brings wealth. The success of the United States indicates a correlation between thoughtlessness and success.”

Eider paused to catch his breath, or to give his teeth time to catch up with his jaws. “George,” he finally said, “How well are you functioning in this society?”

            “Not very well.”

            “Exactly. You’ve lost you’re job, you’ve failed in your marriage. Now, let me ask you this. Would you agree you’re driven mostly by thoughts, and in the grand scheme of things your thinking has caused more problems than it’s solved—in short, your life has become unmanageable because of your thinking?”

            “I think so,” George replied.

            “Excellent, that’s the first step, admitting you have a problem. Now I, myself, cannot help you. But here’s the phone number of someone I think will be able to provide hope, which is what you need most at this point . . . because you, my friend, are hopeless. And it’s most important that you realize you are not alone: there are other such unfortunates. Promise me you’ll call that number?”

            “I’ll call it, but who should I ask for?”

            “Don’t worry about that. The only thing you need to say is, ‘Hi, my name is George and I have a thinking problem.’ The person on the other end will know exactly what to do. Just remember that person has been where you are today.”

            “You mean he’s sat on this couch?”

            “Oh, indeed, George, indeed.”

 

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

A podium stood at the front of the large meeting room, and on the far wall hung a poster of the Six Steps of Thinkers Anonymous. George read them slowly:

 

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over our thinking, that our lives had become unmanageable, our very existence meaningless.

 

Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than Hegel could restore us to banality.

 

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our minds over to the dictates of the materialistic society in which we live.

 

Step 4: Made a list of those books that had harmed us and promised never to read them again.

 

Step 5: Made a roaring bonfire into which we cast those books.

 

Step 6: Having slowed our cerebral activity to a crawl as a result of these steps, we repeated them, and promised to keep doing so until we eliminated any tendency to think.

 

Before George had much time to reflect, a man in a fedora and trench-coat, reminding him of a hard-boiled detective out of a Dashiell Hammett novel, approached the podium and called the meeting to order.

“Hi, I’m Fred, and I’m a thinker.”

An enthusiastic chorus of “Hi Fred!” greeted his opening.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not gonna waste your time standing up here and saying anything important.”

Someone in the crowd shouted, “So what else is new?” Laughter erupted all around. George relaxed a little, settling more comfortably in his folding metal chair. 

“We all know Tommy,” Fred resumed, “but if you don’t know him yet, you soon will. He’s a walking example of what this program can do. Yup, Tommy’s celebrating twenty-five years tonight, so without further ado, I give you Tommy D.”

Amid tremendous applause Tommy D. made his way to the podium. He was in his mid-sixties, a good-looking man, with close-cropped hair, and a broad jaw. He carried himself easily. George didn’t know what to expect, but was pleased to see Tommy—and nearly all the members of the group—appeared normal. There was no way to tell by looking at them they had a thinking problem.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Tommy D. and I’m a grateful, recovering thinker.”

A chorus of “Hi Tommy!” met this introduction.

“Friends, as most of you know, it’s customary for us, when we stand here and tell our stories, to give our date of thoughtlessness, the day we were finally able to cork our minds. Well, due to the strength of this fellowship and a power greater than Hegel, I’m happy to say it’s been twenty-five years since I stopped thinking.”

Applause broke out; Tommy stepped away from the microphone.

“Yes,” Tommy continued, “a quarter of a century since I’ve felt the need to think. And I can honestly say I haven’t had a single relapse since stepping through the doors of Thinkers Anonymous. Now as most of you know, it’s customary when telling our stories to abide by the guidelines in the medium-sized book—to tell what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. I’m going to do that, but before I begin, I see a lot of new faces here tonight, that brings a smile to my lips. I want to give anyone here the opportunity to share if they need to. So before I start, let me ask: is there anyone out there who’s having a problem staying away from a thought?”

The room was silent.

 “Okay,” Tommy said, “that’s just something I like to do at speaker meetings where there’s usually not a chance for people to share. If you are having a problem staying away from a thought, and don’t feel like talking about it now, grab someone after the meeting. There are plenty of folks here with a good deal of time in the program, people who stopped thinking years ago.

“Ladies and gentlemen, many of you are familiar with my story. I was born into a thinking environment. Both my parents were professors—need I say more? They’d think twenty-four seven. It was in this environment—which I’d call ‘dysfunctional’—that I was raised. I’ve been told my first words were ‘tabula rasa.’”

George was deeply touched. His first words had been “allegory of the cave.”

“Unfortunately,” Tommy continued, “my slate didn’t stay blank for long. Like many of us, I developed a passion for learning. When the other kids were watching TV and playing games, I was translating Ovid, reading Shakespeare, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. At twelve years of age, I’d mastered quantum physics, built a small-scale nuclear bomb (which got me grounded for a week), and almost developed a cure for cancer.

 “Ladies and gentlemen, it was then that the same people who had had such a devastating impact on my early development, my parents, discovered this fellowship . . . and it changed their lives.

“When my parents brought home what they learned—or forgot—in these rooms, I didn’t know what to do. In no time at all, this program taught them everything they needed to stop thinking and function successfully in society. Of course, at that point my own thinking problem was painstakingly clear. Frankly, I had no idea how I could live without thinking. But when they started practicing the steps, things really changed.” He paused, took a sip from a cup of water. “And guess what I did? I rebelled. I can sum up the rest of what happened in one word: spiritual quest. I explored all the world’s major and minor religions and became a devoted follower of several. Even the Buddhists were impressed with the genuineness of my spirituality. And, as we all know, it’s hard to bullshit a Buddhist—if you’ll pardon my German. In short, I rejected this materialist society and sought to find a deeper meaning in life, something more than financial success and the acquisition of material goods, something intangible, something . . . holy.”

Some in the audience began to chuckle.

Tommy smiled. “I know; looking back on it, it’s funny. I mean, how could I have ever thought there was more to life than amassing wealth and worldly possessions? I’m almost ashamed to think how thoughtful I once was—especially as a proud citizen of the most powerful and completely thoughtless country in the world today: the United States of America.”

Thunderous applause erupted, several people rose to their feet, whistling, and cheering. Some chanted, “USA!  USA!  USA!” 

After the noise subsided, Tommy continued. “Well, to make a short story long, my parents saved me. They flew to India, where I’d become a Brahmin, and brought me home. They took me to my first meeting and from that point on I stopped thinking. I’ve come to believe that thinking and this program are incompatible; that is, you can’t come to meetings and think, one of them has to go.

“Now, what has my life been like since I’ve joined this fellowship? Let me just say it took me a while to find my feet. You can’t think the way I did for so many years and then just jump right into society. No, sir, it just doesn’t work. I went to meetings, did what people told me. At first, I had a lot of the same concerns we hear on the lips of newcomers: how am I going to pay the bills, or what if I’m involved in a relationship with a person who can’t or won’t stop thinking, or, and this one’s very popular, what am I am going to do with all the free time I’ve got now that I’ve stopped thinking? Let me address all these questions by saying one thing: all that matters is that you don’t think and go to meetings. That’s it. And this advice holds true under all circumstances and situations. No matter what question a newcomer and even an old-timer might ask, not thinking and going to meetings is always the answer.

“It was only after years of doing just that, and of following the six steps of this wonderful, life-saving program that I was able to function in today’s society. And as the years passed, I succeeded in the business world, too. I’ve helped found several enormous enterprises which, I’m proud to say, have met with unmitigated success.”  Tommy mentioned some of them: En---, World---, several dot.com businesses.

“Indeed,” Tommy said, “you might be surprised at the famous people who belong to our fellowship. There seems to be a link between a person’s fortune and fame and how completely they’ve been able to stop thinking. Many of our country’s leaders are proud, though anonymous members, of our illustrious fellowship. In fact, some TA members argue, myself included, that working in Washington brings a faster and more long-lasting cessation of thought than anything else. Of course, there are those who point out that there’s a selection bias here—that only the most mindless run for office, so there’s some controversy as to the exact nature of the cause-effect relationship. But still, you can’t argue with the basic point. Some people, knowing how successful I am, how much money I’ve made, how I’ve gone without thinking for so many years say to me, ‘Hey, Tommy, why don’t you run for office?’ I tell them although I’m flattered, and certainly qualified, I can’t overlook my own past: once a thinker, always a thinker, as we say here in the program. In fact, my worst thinking got me here. No, I say politics are best left to those who have never even been tempted to think. 

“Now, you may be saying to yourself, Okay, I know I need to stop thinking, but where do I start? You might think it’s going to be really hard to quit, and wonder what you should do when the urge to think strikes. Well, whenever I’m tempted, I call my sponsor and talk about it. And something he told me a long time ago has helped a great deal: When you have the urge to think, take a walk. He pointed out that few of us can both walk and think; in fact, the people with the longest time in the program can’t walk and do much of anything. Years ago, I used to see all these people out jogging or walking, and I’d think to myself, What benefit could they derive from such exercise? It didn’t make any sense until my sponsor told me they were trying to avoid thinking by distracting themselves with physical activity. Then I saw the connection. Most professional athletes, for example, have practically brought all brain activity to a halt. I can’t remember the last time any athlete, when interviewed, demonstrated anything remotely resembling a thought. And how does society treat them? By paying them millions of dollars! You see the beauty of it, the brilliance?

“But despite the great benefits from not thinking you still might ask what you’ll do for fun once your mind’s slowed to a crawl. Let me tell you that’s when the fun really starts. Ignorance really is bliss. In fact, you’ll do the same things you did when you were thinking, but you’ll derive greater pleasure from them. For instance, I still go to bookstores. Now, I don’t recommend that if you’re new to the program, but after some time not thinking you can. Of course, you can’t haunt the philosophy or classic literature sections. But you can safely check out the bestsellers and new releases. There’s no chance you’ll find any creativity, or originality there. Oh, and notice which books sell the most these days. That’s right: the how to books for dummies. These are great, not least because they demonstrate that being stupid is a status symbol—and if you don’t believe that, just take one look at the Kardashians. People browse the shelves, see something with the word dummy in the title, identify, pick it up, and buy it. A stroke of mindless brilliance on the part of publishers, because they realize people just want to be dumb. 

“When the going gets rough, rely on the slogans—I do. ‘Don’t think and go to meetings’; ‘Don’t think and drive’; ‘We can learn a lot from dummies’; and, of course, ‘One day at a time.’ This last slogan is really important to me. When temptation strikes, I remember: don’t think . . . just for now, and then for the next now, and pretty soon, I’m safe again. That slogan helps me focus on the moment, helps keep me mindless one second at a time. I know that as long as I don’t think today, I have a chance at not thinking tomorrow.

 “And let me tell you a little secret about how I’ve been able to string together so many years of minimal brain activity. Sometimes, when I feel myself on the brink of thought—and even after all these years, I still get tempted—it helps me to take a good look at the people I see every day. For it seems that wherever you go these days, and no matter what you do, you’re confronted with people who’ve successfully overcome the urge—if, indeed, they ever had one—to think. I look at these people and say, Hey, now, wait a minute. He obviously hasn’t had a thought in years and yet he’s so happy, so together. Chances are good he’s even wealthy. And then I ask myself, Why can’t I not think like that? People’s very thoughtlessness inspires me and I cast aside the urge to think and just keep going.

“I’ll close with my favorite slogan: ‘There’s nothing more stinking than your own deep thinking.’ And if you don’t believe this, ladies and gentlemen, just remember what the first four letters of the word analysis spell and ask yourself whether you want to continue to stink. Because if you go down that thought-ridden road, you’ll eventually end up in the place that’s promised to us in the medium-sized book: oblivion. My name is Tommy D., folks, and if nobody’s told you to stop thinking today it’s because nobody even understands what the hell you’re talking about.”

The room burst into raucous applause. Tommy was swept up and carried off for a cup of coffee. After the crowd dispersed, George approached Tommy and asked him to be his sponsor. George said he knew he’d found a kindred spirit. They exchanged phone numbers. George promised to call him the next day. George rode the bus home, grinning idiotically every mile of the way. He knew he’d found what he needed; he’d come home. Thinkers Anonymous was his salvation.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

            Unfortunately, our story doesn’t end well. George watched TV, perused tabloid headlines, but he couldn’t stop thinking. Despite a prodigious effort to abandon thought, George became a “chronic relapser.” He’d go to meetings for a time, then slack off, and eventually lapse into a period of prolonged thought. Some program members, after not seeing him for a while, would go to his apartment to check on him. They usually found him sitting at his computer amidst piles of thought-provoking books. Sometimes they were able to coax him into coming back; he’d go for about a week. But then, just when it seemed he was doing well, he’d lapse into days or even weeks of deep reverie. Longstanding members of TA reported seeing George in bookstores, sitting on the floor of the Philosophy section, flipping through the pages of weighty tomes. Rumor had it he was even writing a manifesto of sorts on some arcane and existential topic. Poor George just couldn’t manage it.

George never did get his job back, or his wife, for that matter. He took to writing fiction and scathing satires, often only thinly disguised social and political commentaries. His writing has brought him neither fame, nor fortune; indeed, the handful of critics who have even bothered reviewing his work, say the writing is verbose and deals with ideas that, while somewhat interesting to a select few, are so esoteric as to be of little use to most people.

Nonetheless, I, for one, wish George well, and have a sad suspicion that among such unfortunates, his fate is all too common.    
 


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