In Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein: His Life and Universe it’s not clear to me which part of the mind-blowing story of Albert Einstein is the most mind blowing. I know how difficult it is to rethink my own inner universe, throw out entrenched ideas and preconceptions and false realities in order to usher in something closer to the truth, knowing all the time that the truth may elude me until I die, and maybe even beyond that. And that’s just one middle class, middle aged white woman. So how did Einstein have the chutzpah, brainpower and vision to do all that for the ACTUAL universe? He didn’t just blow his own mind, he blew everybody’s minds. And with a few exceptions, people loved him for it.
But as fun as it would be to draw analogies straight down the line between Einstein’s breakthroughs in theoretical physics and the path to understanding one’s self, it would be forced and silly and not that revealing.
But there is something about his process that keeps coming back to me. Einstein was a loner in many ways, in that he worked for large stretches of time in solitude, doing thought experiments and re-seeing everything from atoms to distant stars in a totally unique way. But he always came out of his genius cave to interact with others. He had genius friends –tons of them—who could pretty much keep up with him when he’d run his cool ideas past them. They’d sit around, or ride the trolleys, or write letters, discussing and debating and sharing. A lot of the time, when Einstein did that, he came up with even better ideas about his ideas. He understood something in a new way or figured out what the roadblock was that had been pestering him. He had lots of “aha” moments when he was by himself, but it seems pretty clear that he had lots of “aha” moments when he was in profound communication and dialogue with other people. I don’t think he would have gone as far, realized as much, redirected our understanding of the universe as completely, had he kept to himself.
I find this fact comforting and validating and not at all surprising. I guess I could have assumed that someone of Einstein’s capabilities might not need a sounding board the way normal (non-scary-genius) people do. But I would have been wrong, as it turned out. He did need it, and so do we.
As both a former student and educator, I always got such a kick out of the way the sparks fly in a classroom where people are talking. A lively dialogue will take everyone to that “new place” in their learning far faster, and more thoroughly, than reading, listening or memorizing will. Even Einstein would admit that reading, listening and even some pesky memorizing are all important pieces too, but those things do not a mind create. Without playing mental catch with someone, it’s just not the same.
My son learned a lot about pitching from throwing a rubber ball at the chimney outside, on which he drew a square out of chalk. He’d go out there all by himself and throw it and throw it and throw it till his accuracy was incredible. But what made him a damned good baseball player was … yeah, you get the picture. Playing baseball. With other people.
Community is so irreplaceable and joyful. A bunch of people sitting around a table drinking wine and discussing politics. Close friends exploring spiritual beliefs gathered together under a full moon on a summer’s night. Parents with their children having dinner together and letting the topics of life unfold among them. Kids leaning forward at their desks as they listen and wait their turn to share an insight or epiphany, and then as they sit there, someone else says something and inside their head, everything gets notched up another level. The hand that was raised suddenly reaches five inches higher and the look of ecstatic awareness on the face of that student is unmatchable. An idea looks like pure joy on the face of someone in the process of thinking. Or learning. Which go together, don’t they?
I get nervous about distance learning, and on-line courses, and the ways education is adjusting to trends, financial reality and the needs of the consumer. The community of the classroom is such a big thing to lose. The very fact that we don’t live within a few blocks of our extended families, to share and pass down the wisdom of the generations that way, as people used to do, saddens me. Where was the red tent when I needed it? When I think of all that I had to reinvent and figure out for myself about being a woman, being a wife, being a mother, taking care of myself, seeking fulfillment, and juggling the things we all juggle, it’s a shame. Will my wisdom be lost among the interstates and computer wires that have replaced, in many ways, the connective tissue of community?
Being connected to other people is one of the best things about being a person and that connection gives me a chance to tap into my genius self. I learn so much about life through the example and sharing of others, and about myself by bouncing me off of people and letting them bounce themselves off of me. We need time to ferment in solitude and a chance to bounce and share. There are times in our lives when we have less time to ourselves, and other times when we have fewer chances to connect with others. It’s a balancing act. Einstein had to figure it out. We all do.