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The Robot

My son Mark and I were discussing the recent discoveries about rat's brains when they run mazes and how they dream about doing it at night.   We were speculating on this subject, about where this resides in the brain, global or shared memories if they exist.  We ended up arguing about how knowledge is accessed and how habits that must be learned to do by rote are stored and accessed in one's brain as opposed to reasoning things out, and about the mechanics of retrieving memories of things long past. 

I was thinking about it further when I received and posted the poem about an elderly hospitalized woman with young memories, Look at Me.  Time is fleeting, although it doesn't seem so to the young.  We need to live every moment we can, consciously and awake, and treasure the present.

Then I read this piece in Recipe Du Jour's excellent newsletter.  I was so impressed I asked if I could reprint it, and he gave me permission to do so.

The Helpful Robot that Lives with Me
by Walter Mills

Caught in the rush of the moment it is easy to lose track of the sense of our lives.  This is a recurring theme in this column because it is a recurring theme in my life, and, I suspect, in the lives of many others.

Colin Wilson, the English author and philosopher of odd subjects, calls this phenomenon "the robot".  The robot is the part of our psyche that takes over when we are comfortable and not paying attention, for instance when we drive a car.  Learning to drive, or ride a bicycle, or to roller skate, requires tremendous concentration and focus.  However, once those skills have been mastered, they become automatic and our concentration wanders.  The robot takes over.

The robot is a good thing, if we're doing something automatic.  Every sports fan knows that thinking too much ruins a free throw, hooks a tee shot into the trees.  But the robot has no sense of place, and will gladly do all of our living for us.

So we rush through our lives, turning everything over to the robot that we can; eating meals without tasting, responding to conversation in rote ways, listening to our children prattle with half an ear while we think about who did what to us at work that day.  We don't really need to concentrate at all to do ninety-five per cent of the things we do.  Which means that ninety-five percent of the time we are not fully there in our own lives.

What exactly does it mean to be there in our own lives?  What is the sense of existence?  In a rare idle moment I was looking for something to read among the books on the shelves in our front room and I picked out the book "Civilization", Kenneth Clark's translation of the scripts for his famous television series of 1969.  Like the series, it is a rather overwhelming compilation of the art and architecture of Europe over the last twelve hundred years.  As I turned through the pages, studying Viking ships, illuminated manuscripts, twelfth century cathedrals, I felt the robot loosen its grip on my consciousness and recede.

Suddenly, I was mentally engaged in a subject much larger than my own life, the lives of tens of thousands of craftsmen and women, artists, cathedral builders and dwellers in a spiritual life barely fathomable to me.  The robot was nowhere to be found.

Why did the robot choose this particular moment to disappear?  Partly, I think, because the subject of the book engaged both the intellectual and the spiritual functions of my mind.  It was as if the master of the house had awakened and sent the servant back to his quarters.

We are awake and aware when we are learning something new.  Danger also awakens us, the reason, I suppose, that so many normal people take up rock climbing and hang gliding.  Falling in love can send the robot into the furthest dungeon, and when he returns we can fairly say, "the romance is over."

We are probably not meant to live in complete awareness always, to be fully conscious of our existence each moment.  It is almost too much, really, to live at such a pitch.  I think of Picasso, in a constant creative frenzy, or Proust, so sensitive that he lived much of his life in a cork- lined room while he obsessed on his memories of childhood.

This problem of losing the sense of our lives, the emotional content, is pervasive and difficult to solve.  The robot is our friendly servant, happy to drive the car, mow the lawn, run the kids to soccer practice.  He just isn't capable of living our lives with much pleasure.  We need to be awake to realize we are enjoying our existence, that we can be thrilled by beauty, saddened by loss, stimulated by ideas, moved to tears.

Each morning when I get ready for work I stand in the dark at the top of the stairs, the family asleep in their various beds, and I am still half asleep.  This is the moment to choose who will own the day, the robot or me.  Most days it is no contest; I never wake up.  But now and then, just to know who is the master in my internal house, I wake up and kick the robot down the stairs.

(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2000 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide.

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