It is a common axiom that intelligent people are often less happy. Many historical geniuses or great inventors were notoriously depressed, loners, or removed from normal healthy interactions in some way or another. Oppenheimer spent the rest of his life following the Manhattan Project deeply upset with the idea that something as terrible and destructive as the atomic bomb existed, and that he had created it. For Oppenheimer, the root of his unhappiness resulted directly from the fruits of his impressive intellect and likely the tangible destruction it had wrought. When asked about the first time the Manhattan Project team saw the A-bomb tested, Oppenheimer famously said
“A few people laughed, a few people cried, most were silent…I remembered a line from the Hindu scripture…bhagavad gita…Vishnu takes on his multi-armed form and says ‘now I am become death, destroyer of worlds’ I think we all felt that. One way or another.”
This is one of his most famous quotes, and for good reason. Although the recording adds a certain humanity and emotion to the words, even the text alone belies a deep, existential and metaphysical dread. Some might say that it wasn’t necessarily his genius that was intertwined with his unhappiness, but rather the child of his intellect, the bomb. To that I might ask you if there is a difference between the two. Nonetheless, a perhaps less intellectually flippant answer would be to refer to a lesser-known quote from Oppenheimer. In a 1929 letter to his brother, Oppenheimer wrote:
“I can’t think that it would be terrible of me to say — and it is occasionally true — that I need physics more than friends”
Robert Oppenheimer was not unique in his woes. Vincent Van Gogh was reportedly unhappy all his life, with frequent depressive spells and other mental illness plaguing one of the most influential geniuses in western art history. This eventually lead to him taking his own life before age 40. He is credited as having created his own unique style, and is arguably the most prolific and ingenious Belgian artist of all time. However, he died poor and alone, having painted most of his 2100+ pieces in the two years prior to shooting himself in the chest.
Yet another example, the great Ernest Hemingway, who suffered a deep depression, once said:
“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
A few years and several failed electroshock therapy treatments later, Hemingway himself ate a bullet from his favorite gun.
These geniuses represent peaks in human brilliance and talent, but the trend also holds in a general sense. People who have gone through a long period of schooling relative to the general population are some of the least happy people I know. Some of you might be thinking that level of schooling isn’t a very good proxy for intellect. I agree. You might say that the reason that unhappiness and schooling don’t anecdotally correlate better than they already do is because there are lots of people who are well educated but otherwise rather unintelligent.
Having acknowledged the limitations of using schooling as representative of intellect, I have noticed a peculiar something about the ivory-tower social justice which of late innervates more and more aspects of university life and learning, especially in the United States. As the now infamous clip of the pop-culture feminist icon, Anita Sarkeesian, proclaims
“When you start learning about systems, everything is sexist, everything is racist, everything is homophobic and you have to point it all out to everyone all the time”
I often hear the argument that treating everything as prejudiced is either hyperbolic, or is an extremist view. But the millions of people making up the general readership of several common news outlets seem pretty okay with this “extremism”. According to Salon, voting for Donald Trump is a sexist reaction to women’s rights. According to Slate, craft brewing has a sexism problem. Here, the New York Post reminds us that calling a pantsuit a pantsuit is extremely problematic. University of Wisconsin recently offered a post-doctoral position in feminist biology because science is sexist too!
Thank god we have some pop culture icons to guide us in the right direction as well, I hope they make a condescending video telling me who to vote for and what to think! Who wouldn’t want to get their political viewpoints secondhand from Barbara Streisand who told the Hollywood Reporter that sexism extends to lab animals? Babs unironically spouts off the fact that only male mice are used in labs because the female mice’s hormones are more complex. She goes on to explain that this is true about human females too. Only one problem: as someone who works in a mouse lab, she’s utterly incorrect. Where do you think we get new mice of the same genetic lineage you dense motherfucker? Indeed standard scientific protocol dictates that mice be gender balanced and age matched within an experiment.
The Telegraph reports, admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek, that air conditioning is now sexist because the work clothes women wear are lighter and often don’t cover as much of their body so they end up cold in the office. To this I would suggest that they switch over to a pantsuit but it’s sexist to say that word. My bad.
I could go on for hours like this, but at risk of losing the spirit of this piece, I digress satisfied that I’ve challenged the “vocal minority” talking point.
“Hold on, did he just compare Anita Sarkeesian to Van Gogh?”
In the sense that underscoring contrast is a comparison, yes.
Perhaps in order for my meaning to be understood, I need to explain what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. A few days ago I was watching a video compiled by a friend with whom I studied abroad. We were involved in an ecology and wildlife management program in east Africa. Studying in Tanzania was one of the best, most memorable, and formative experiences of my life. However, as I was watching the video, which featured short clips of wildlife, everyday life in the village, classes, and safaris we had been on, the smile that was plastered over my face began to taste sour. I was watching a clip of myself and a few students sitting around with one of the organizers of the base camp. Yohanna, an Tanzanian man, was full of such ebullient life and happiness that it was impossible not to feel a little happier around him. He was just that kind of guy. He had a very characteristic greeting that would often announce his presence before you even saw who was speaking. “Allllooo” (ah-low) he would say in a sing-song kind of voice. In this particular clip we were trying to get him to give his signature greeting so that we could document it. As I was watching it I cringed a little “Were we teasing him for having an accent when he already speaks 4 times as many languages as most of us? Was he just putting up with us because of our class and skin color? Was the pleasantness of our interaction merely a function of privilege?” It was an insidious thought, something terrible that I couldn’t shake at first. Something deep down told me this wasn’t the case. Yohanna is a good man. The experiences that we shared, the cultural exchanges, were good and real. Talking to people around the village, making food with the Maasai mamas, building thorny enclosures with poor farmers, experiencing another culture and world. So long as these actions don’t come from a “white savior” position, so long as you recognize the fortune which put you in that position, why should I let the ideology of my freshman seminar class govern the way I experienced the world? Indeed, this mentality which purports to be respectful of cultural differences was very clearly getting in the way of a real cultural exchange!
And therein was the answer to the dilemma I was grappling with. The ideology that was being proclaimed by academia, which I was a part of, told me that everything was problematic. Due to the systems in place there was nothing good about interactions between any people except those who fill the same gender, racial, sexual, ability, and class roles. But this isn’t just true of ivory tower social justice. How many times have you seen a buzzfeed or HuffPo article or your friend’s status (okay this might just be because I have a lot of social justice warrior friends…) about how hard it is to be “woke” because you see sexism and inequality in every movie or TV show, in all media, everywhere in the world?
When the great geniuses and intellectuals of history are faced with beauty and truth, those truths may not be good ones. They may not be happy. Indeed, perhaps Van Gogh couldn’t have been a true artistic genius without access to the dread and darkness that came with his depression. My point is they didn’t seek it out. On the other hand, seeing every interaction as potentially problematic based on skin color or gender identity does not represent intellectualism or truth. Expecting prejudice of all media and interpersonal interactions we see is an ideology, and ideologies are where truth develops Stockholm syndrome. Seeing everything through one lens is not intellectualism, it is laziness. It ignores the countless beautiful and difficult and complex dimensions of humanity. Sometimes the more we “learn” the less we think about things. There is a famous Zen saying from the great teacher Shunryu Suzuki…
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the master’s mind there are few”
While he was likely referring to the notion that someone who is naive about a topic might think about problems in a unique way, that a master would not consider based on his experience, I think it applies here as well. Indeed, in the mind of someone embedded deep in the ideology of academia, there is only the truth that interactions between humans almost always involve some power differential. Are there interactions which are problematic? Yes. Of course. However, it would seem to this writer, that seeing problems in the place of goodness and truth is the greater threat to understanding this beautiful and terrible world.
The experiences I shared with Yohanna and all my other east African friends were real and good. Looking back on something as simple as sharing a cold ginger beer on a hot night or working together to set up a tent or monitor a group of animals reminds me of how, despite how my education might have postured me to be unhappy , there is goodness in this world.
Acknowledge that which is wrong in the world, and fight it tirelessly, but do not inject poisonous hate and negativity into memories or falsely apply them to experiences. We are complex systems interacting with complex systems within complex systems. It is not Socratic sadness that leaves us questioning a simple conversation, a hug, a gesture, but the blindness of an ideologue. While the nature of truth and genius and intellect may dictate that they often carry with them sadness, we must not confuse the perception of negativity with truth and genius and intellect.
A year ago I learned that Yohanna had died in a motor-bike accident near the Kenya-Tanzania border. It was deeply upsetting. I knew that people died in accidents with motor bikes fairly often in that region of Africa, but Yohanna was young, it didn’t feel like his time. The world had lost someone so full of life and whose presence was a blessing to others. The true sadness was not that my experiences with Yohanna had been tainted by privilege or systems of oppression. The true sadness was knowing how much good had left the world with that cheerful, 5’4″ Tanzanian man.