Distinctive in the Universe

Distinctive in the Universe

Very grateful to Kowling Lee for the splendid pix

Have you read John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”? It’s a book that made a huge impression on me when I was a child and continues to do so ninety years later. A gripping story, it combines a deeply held philosophy about the nature of mankind with drama of who we are and how we work. It is not an answer to ‘The crisis of who’ (Daily Paradox 17May23) but it compellingly portrays a version of why we are a unique species. 

If you have never read it, please read it now. Even if you don’t have time to read it all, do read Chapter 14 from where it says “The last, clear, definite function of man, muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need”. (Of course, Steinbeck meant ‘mankind’ not the gender-limiting ‘man’. He used the shorter word because of the lilt it gives the language in the sentence.)

You may disagree with Steinbeck that humankind is ‘distinctive in the universe’. Agreeing or disagreeing are matters of faith. We cannot prove that there is a greater power than us but we should ask who or what caused humankind to be as it is? Our own contribution to it and its future has perhaps been, and still may be, limited – today less limited than it was a year ago. We have invented a form of experience-based intelligence. We are now inventing creative intelligence. How will that relate to our own intelligence?

It can be argued that all development is experience based. To some extent that is inevitable. Creativity is the link that joins one experience to another. That is why the best definition of creativity is “The ability to perceive relationships”. It’s the relationship between the experience you had and the event over which you now have some control that matters. My father’s definition of experience was “It lends precision to the craftsman’s tool, and confidence, but leaves a fool a fool”. Experience without creativity is certainly hollow, a mere repetition of achievements to date. When experience is edited by perceived connections it becomes a valuable asset. 

Who we are is both limited and enhanced by what drives us. And what drives us is instinct and aspiration. We are born with instinct; aspiration is what we motivate ourselves, often with help from others but always by making a significant personal effort, even if only of decision. Thirty years of working with clients who want to get on in their careers have taught us that anyone can improve their life if they aspire to do so.

So much decision making has been removed from the individual that we have slunk into a habit of “menus”. It has made us lazy in some areas. The menu we create for ourselves is always better than the one we are offered. Faced today with having to decide who we want to be, we must think creatively, or follow the herd.

Most thinking people will want to retain enough decision making to be able to identify themselves as individuals. They are already too marshalled by system and process. 

Steinbeck tells us we do have a decision to make. Even in the worst human circumstances we are uniquely human. We could spend a lifetime defining what that means. The Grapes of Wrath shows us how to aspire and deal with it.

If Steinbeck’s proposition is obsolete, what will be the new incentive?

Will you decide?

Good morning

John BIttleston


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21 May 2023