Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
For Sale: Mental Stuff
August 8, 1997
A recent essay in Time magazine by Lance Morrow discussed our minds and
what we choose to stuff them with. It was called "Let us recuse
ourselves awhile." Consultation with Mr. Webster tells me that recuse
means to disqualify or withdraw from a position because of personal
interest. My lawyer son knew that all the time.
Sherlock Holmes, certainly one of the smartest characters in fiction,
advised Watson that the mind is like an attic. "You have to stock it
with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of
every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be
useful to him gets crowded out."
Even Mr. Holmes with his underslung pipe and his frightening logic might
blanch at the formidable array of knowledge to which we are exposed
today. My problem, and I suspect yours also, is to decide how much
knowledge I can absorb without self-destructing - and how much I want
anyway. There are times in my life when an absolutely empty mind is
much to be desired, as at 3:00 a. m. when I would like to quit thinking
about what in the world I am going to write next week and go to sleep.
Mr. Morrow suggests that we can, and of necessity must, make some
The brain is often compared to a computer. That's logical, since the
computer was developed to expand capability of the brain and relieve it
of some of the detail work, the boring stuff. We all have the
hardware. It weighs about three pounds and is probably the most
miraculous organ in the human body. But the software varies, as does
the input. Psychologists tell us that everything we have ever seen or
heard is programmed in there. Scary thought.
Information flows in all the time from people we know and from those we
don't, from books, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, daily conversation,
gossip. We get information we want and lots that we don't want.
Fortunately, most of it goes through the brain without leaving any
So what are we going to pitch in order to make room for what we really
want? I suspect that the recent major blast over the love life or lack
thereof of Donald and Ivana Trump heads the list of trivia we really
don't need. And yet it has become front page stuff lately, not just in
the tabloids but in the newspapers and even on the cover of Time. For a
few days the Trumps edged out Violeta Chamorro and ran a close second to
Mikhail Gorbachev. I'm not sure what that says about us, but I suspect
that the huge changes taking place in the world have caused us to OD on
Maybe it really is time to recuse ourselves from all the stuff which we
really don't need or in which we have absolutely no interest. How about
a massive yard sale for thoughts? Somebody else may be happy to pick up
the stuff I don't want for a dime and I may find some wonderful gem on
sale for just a quarter.
Sherlock Holmes might put astronomy and geology on the block and hunt
around for a missing bit of logic he doesn't have. More modern mystery
writers, like Tony Hillerman for example, would need to pick up geology,
all the Navajo lore available and bits of astronomy and comparative
religion. He could probably discard calculus and professional football.
Librarians, unfortunately, can afford to toss out very little. They are
always expected to know everything from how many legs a bee has to how
to spell disestablishmentarianism. They need to be buyers.
Politicians - now that's a hard one. On the federal level I think they
may as well sell Economics 101 for 50 cents or so, since they aren't
using it. Maybe they could pick up nuclear physics and some advanced
I think I would dump what I learned about library cataloging, since I
have retired and don't need it anymore. Instead I would search around
for some tidbits - anything - dropped by writers like Rita Mae Brown and
Linda Ellerbee and Molly Ivins.
It really is time to recuse ourselves.
(Note 1997: The names change and the information sources increase
astronomically, but there's still too much information for one brain.)