Archives 1 1b
4b 5 5b
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
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
(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is
copyright © 2000 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide.