Mary Beth Writes

Someone asked me what I thought might be the definition of genius. (If you send me an open-ended question I might try to answer you, too.)

Here are some of my thoughts.  Because on Halloween, plus the day the House of Reps votes on how to proceed with the impeachment proceedings, plus California is on fire, plus there is a half of foot of snow out my window – why wouldn’t we talk about shades of genius?

Sometimes it's calming to talk about a situation that doesn't exactly affect many of us. 

If you look up the etymology of the word genius, it starts with the Greeks and Romans. GEN is the same root as ‘generation’, and it means (more or less) ‘where the breath comes in’.  In ancient times genius was considered as something OUTSIDE a person, like a spirit that lives close to a person that will infuse them with ability and curiosity about relevant things.

Curiously, the more researchers figure out how personality works, the closer we get back to this.  There really are waves of energy (for lack of a better word) coming from others that affect us. And we do the same to them. If there’s a genius in the room, are we all elevated?

Then during the Renaissance, the idea that some men (sic) were extraordinary and others were just ‘plug-alongs’ rose to the surface.  Call me liberal and cynical but doesn’t this just figure?  As people who were not born to royal/’superior’ families started to make money and amass power (think the Medici family) there had to be a way to justify their luxury versus the poverty and exploitation all around them. So they called themselves geniuses and boom, a new way to conquer by dividing.

What's your opinon of Bill Gates and Zuckerberg?

I see two ways of thinking about Genius. First, there are those rare human supernovas born with bright and dazzling brains that enable them to write symphonies at 7-years old and solve world class mathematics conundrums and write astonishing literature, and figure out how the universe works.

I have never personally met that kind of genius.  My sense is that this kind of brilliance generally arrives with a side order of being on a continuum of mental agility / not so agile.  Not that having autism, depression, bipolarism, schizophrenia means one is also a genius, but that the biochemistry of human development that affects one part of the structure of a person’s brain will likely affect other parts of it, too.  We know so little.  Imagine where we’d be if what we spent on war was spent on knowledge?  

Also: When we talk about genius, we need to be careful about our privilege, especially our white privilege. We so easily accept that “Shakespeare and Mozart were geniuses.” Of course. So who were the people of color, or women, who fly to your mind like Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein?

We all know there were and are Black geniuses, as well as ladies who Did Surprising Stuff, but none of us know exactly who we would name if we had to choose fast. This isn’t because we are bad people, but it does say our privilege is around us like a huge down coat.

How many geniuses died in cotton fields or on slave ships. Or spent their lives making a hundred or so corn tortillas per day while trying to keep themselves and their kids safe from the dangers surrounding them? How many genius kids are displaced right now without access to education?  How much faster could humans have figured out cancer and heart disease and astrophysics and how to design comfortable shoes that never wear out - if we didn’t enable the finest institutions of learning to belong to the rarified rich?

Glance at this and consider how many brilliant humans are in these numbers right now. https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

So this leaves the kind of genius that’s somewhat available to the rest of us to be. People with gifts and talents who have somehow received enough training, lessons, time, education, and wherewithal to practice and pursue their blessed cleverness.

A couple months ago Len mentioned something he wanted to try to cook. He was describing an item he had eaten about 20 years ago; he was thinking the sauce from that meal would be tasty to recreate.

I have been this man’s Matrimonial Other for eons and yet I stood there, astonished. “You can remember a flavor from twenty year ago?”

He replied, “Sure, can’t you?”

No. I know what I like to eat which is almost everything, but I don’t have a place in my brain for the actual flavor of things. It never occurred to me others could.

Genius involves what a person's brain processes and doesn't process. 

I know I am a good writer. I have a way with words as did both my mom and dad, my grandparents, and my energetically Anabaptist great-grandfather who rode from cabin to cabin in the 1890’s, preaching in living rooms, leading prayer meetings, starting the church where I, sixty years later, would marinate in pious scriptures and hymns.  I’ve been living in a Niagara of words since I was old enough to lisp. 

My “genius” is a good brain, a childhood calm and supported enough for me to play and go to school, lots of reading, and super-wordy higher education.  Which I then used and abused by writing a lot of stuff for a long, long time. So my “genius” is not very complicated to understand. I’m good at what I wanted to do and have done. 

I read an acerbic remark that Annie Dillard once made. (Dillard is one of my most favorite writers; she’s an amazing writer.)

She said she heard of a general retiring from the military to, he said, “take up a little writing”.

To which she replied that when she retired from writing, she might take up a little "general-ing.”

It’s kind of interesting - and humbling - to consider what one has become a genius of. Such as: In addition to writing, I’m really good at clearing a messy kitchen well and fast, baking, walking (I’m an ace walker), and reading. I suck at knitting, crocheting, and creating small delicate things. It’s good I don’t moonlight as a surgeon.

So did I define genius? Probably not.

But I did find this awesome quote. It’s attributed to Albert Einstein except the Quote Attribution site says that’s wrong and is probably from a self-help book in the early 2000’s.  https://quoteinvestigator.com/

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole like believing that it is stupid.”

If anyone is still reading, I think it would be marvelous if you responded to this essay with your own list of abilities that have become, through your life, your genius.

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Comments

Recently watched a mini-series on Bill Gates ("Inside Bill's Brain") on Netflix -- it was in some ways a puff piece, but also very revealing.. I guess he is a very smart person and likely someone who would qualify as a genius -- he devours so much knowledge on so many subjects and connects it together in amazing and admirable ways. He has a complicated ethical perspective which seems to be evolving into an admirable life. Zuck strikes me as a very talented huckster whose ethics are highly questionable, well beyond confused. I don't think being a super-slick-salesman qualifies one as a genius. So that's my 2 cents. :)

I am very good at organization: paperwork, bill paying, planning. And, I have common sense, which I believe takes a certain genius. I am however, a complete luddite. Technology, blah! I recently; yes recently, learned to "cut and paste." I am 58. I believe that act alone should qualify me as genius. :) Patricia/Fl

I am one of those people who can remember a flavor from long ago... I remember reading an African recipe ( bobotie ) and thinking how tasty It sounded so I made it... It turned out to taste and be a recipe that I remember my mother having made several years ago on a regular basis when we were growing up... I think she made it because you could feed alot of kids for a reasonable price and you could use any stail bread in the house. I also can walk into a room and know exactly how it should look in my head... It may not be genius but It's a talent that I enjoy...

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