tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Balancing that head/heart tension

The original ``Star Trek’’ television program featured a character named Spock, a half-vulcan, half-human space traveler who had a logical mind. The program was in re-runs when I was in grade school. Watching the Gene Rodenburry creation five days a week, the man with pointy ears impressed me with his reasoning ability and his lack of emotion. I wanted to be like him. I even remember praying that God would give me a logical mind ``like Spock’s.’’

Years later in high school, a history teacher introduced the class to the great French Philosophes. These were the world’s greatest thinkers in the 18th century, who formed the basis for philosophical thought that remains relevant to this day. The teacher, Mr. Dawson, asked us to contrast the reasoned life described in the works of Voltaire with the passionate works of Jean-Jacque Rousseau. We were instructed to write an essay about the man who we believed presented a better framework for living. Everyone in the class but me wrote that Voltaire offered the better choice. Having long since stopped watching Star Trek, I chose Rousseau. I wrote about being overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and a love of music. Mr. Dawson liked my essay so much he read portions of it aloud to the class.

Mr. Dawson was asking me to consider for the first time a question that I would wrestle with most of my life: is it better to listen to my head or my heart? Does knowledge provide the best basis for action, or does emotion? The answer, of course, is not one or the other, but both.

Writing taught me this most important lesson. My best work comes from my heart, but depends on my mind. Reviewing the columns I have written over the last dozen years, it is evident the best ones come from my heart. They communicate passion that can only originate in the center of my being. Without my head, however, the ideas in those columns would be meaningless. The best emotional pleas spring from a solid intellectual foundation.

I think of the columns that have originated solely in my head. I wrote them on the basis of research and study. While these columns meet a certain professional standard, they are not artwork. They lack passion. Literally, they lack heart. These columns are a little like an empty train traveling from point A to point B. The train still arrives at the station, but somehow the arrival is not very exciting without passengers. When a baby is conceived, its heart forms first, and then the brain. The human body is the greatest artistic creation of all time. Is it any wonder that smaller works of art should depend on this same pattern of development?

As a boy, I learned to play the French horn. Over the course of years of study and practice, I learned to move air cleanly through the brass tubing. By fingering the valves in a certain sequence or according to certain rhythms, I could produce a pleasant enough sound but it was never really music. The sound didn’t originated in my heart. I had to think about every note, every beat, ever breath. Mechanically, I could work my way through a piece, the same way a well-oiled machine completes its shift to the satisfaction of the plant foreman. But I couldn’t really make music, the way a golden-glove short stop can scoop up a ground ball, pivot, and throw to second without a thought. For me, it was all intellect and no heart. It was Salieri, not Mozart. Today, I would never make the mistake of calling myself a musician.

Just as there are endeavors in my life that were entirely intellectual, there were others that were entirely emotional, like my first love. My heart was in overdrive while my brain went to sleep. That first relationship involved a beautiful high school girl, with whom I spent far too much time. All I saw was her long dark hair, big brown eyes and her friendly smile. I couldn’t see the obvious. I couldn’t see that, in fact, our interests were different and that our goals were incompatible. So like my foray into music, that relationship didn’t last. The head alone wasn’t enough to sustain my musical endeavors and the heart alone wasn’t enough to sustain a relationship.

In a way, we are all artists trying to paint the picture of our lives. True art, which I am trying to achieve with my life, is a perfect blend of heart and head. It is the head and heart working together like a good pitcher/catcher combination. The pitcher can’t do anything if there is no one to catch the ball after he’s thrown a strike. And a catcher without a pitcher has nothing to do. A life without passion is hardly worth living but a life that’s all passion would be madness.

Life is not about choosing between the practicality of the intellect and the emotion of the heart but bringing them together into a splendid balance -- the way a conductor brings together great sounds to create a symphony, or the way a chef mixes the right ingredients to come up with a tantalizing recipe. I am neither a conductor nor a chef; using my heart and head like a map and a compass, I am, nonetheless, navigating my way through life at the dawn of the 21st century.

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