Oct/Nov 2003 Salon

Dead-End Thinking, or, "And So It Goes"

by C.E. Chaffin

How many of us suffer from dead-end thinking? If the essence of genius is looking at a problem from a completely different perspective, as in seeing your mountain from the vista of another, or visualizing the empty space around a tree, then the essence of dullness must be always and only seeing the tree. In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, a book I highly recommend, the author tries to teach us that what we don't see is as important as what we do.

Yet there is a more modest genius, common to the best in Western man: the genius of perseverance, the Thomas Edison attitude that keeps generating possibilities when confronted with a problem. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," I heard very early in my education. Dead-end thinking replies, "If at first you don't succeed, there's no use trying."

One may encounter dead-end thinking in any culture, but in Mexico I find it more pervasive than anywhere I've lived. I'll illustrate the concept with an anecdote:

After a hike up a river canyon here in San Miguel, Mexico, we found a handy pay phone at the trailhead, whereupon I asked our young Mexican friend, Manuel, to call a taxi. Our dog was along, and Mexican taxi drivers balk at dogs, so Manuel requested a truck-taxi—a double cab pickup where the dog could ride in the truck bed. The dispatcher told Manuel they had none. I told him to call again, call another taxi company, even offer them an outlandish amount of pesos to cart us home (while informing them that Kenyon is a service dog, a well-trained hearing-ear dog for my congenitally deaf wife). Despite his superior Spanish, Manuel failed again, explaining no taxis were available.

Yes, we have no taxis!

While stretching my bad back and emptying my boots of water, I told him anything could be negotiated, after which he stared at me blankly as if to say: "But they said there were no taxis." So I rose, gingerly, grabbed the phone and had a taxi in five minutes.

My secret? I simply repeated the information about the dog, the extra pesos, and insisted that we would be happy with the first taxi they sent, the very things I urged him to communicate. It may have been his inborn fatalistic tone that gave the dispatcher power over him. My tone, in less polished Spanish, was expectant, thus generated results, as I was prepared to answer each objection. Faced with such alien optimism, the dispatcher folded.

Another passing cab had already denied us service, perhaps because of the dog or because the driver couldn't imagine two very large and two medium-sized adults plus a large dog fitting into his little Nissan. So to prevent another collision with dead-end thinking when our scheduled cab arrived, I drilled the troops beforehand. We were not to talk, simply file into the car—my wife and dog in the front seat and our son, Manuel and myself squeezed in the back. It was important to appear as if this was done every day so as not to excite the driver's dead-end thinking.

Another example: At a well-known pharmacy here I asked for Bactrim under Spanish brand name, Bactropan (this relatively cheap antibiotic, used largely in the U.S. for bladder infections, also does a good job on Turista). The pharmacy tech brought me a tube of topical cream. I told him I wanted tablets. "That's all we have," he said. I insisted until another pharmacy worker showed him the stack of Bactropan tablet boxes. Without apologizing he brought out a box. I bought it with no further discussion.

There's a lot to be said for traditionalism, for "the way we've always done it," and perhaps it takes a foreigner to see obvious solutions for those steeped in the methods of time-honored cul-de-sacs. Then again, William McNeill, in his Rise of the West, contends that the dominance of European culture after 1500—a time in history when it appeared that the Moslem civilization would take over the world—can only be explained by the individualism fostered by small, semi-democratic, warring Northern European tribes forced to negotiate creatively, that the very barbarism which gave birth to Europe also, through necessity, contained the seeds of creativity and problem-solving—in a word, individualism: thinking for oneself. More ancient civilizations, like China, Egypt and even Mexican Amerindian culture, were vulnerable to barbarians because these fairly static cultures had learned, by long practice (with fewer upheavals) to trust their forefathers' approach.

To give another example of traditional thinking, most Mexican homes have an upstairs patio fronting the street, with drain pipes sticking out over the sidewalk to drain the patio when it rains. In watching houses being built here, I've noticed that the workers invariably drill a large hole through the stucco or brick (or stuccoed brick) only after the balcony wall is built, then insert the drainpipes. I've never seen it done otherwise. One day I asked a mason why he didn't put the drainpipes in first, and he said, in essence, "This is how we've always done it." In defense of his method, it could be that in grading a patio a Mexican mason might not be exactly sure where the lowest points will lie until after the cement settles, yet an American contractor would already have the grade planned to avoid such retrofitting.

We have IQ tests, however suspect, but no good tests for imagination. A friend of mine who can barely get it together (along with his hysterical Italian girlfriend) to move to a new residence, told me again today that his IQ was 160 (where psychologists have estimated Lincoln's).

"And all you got to show for it is a Range Rover," I needled him.

"And it's hers," he said.

Still, instead of renting or borrowing a large truck and making one move of less than a mile, he made umpteen small trips using only the back of his Range Rover, with the back seats up. You can have an impressive Stanford-Binet and still be guilty of dead-end thinking.

There is a famous tale about a man who wouldn't marry a woman for her stupidity unless he found three examples of people even more ignorant. The first discovery in his quest was a man who tacked his pants and suspenders on the wall and tried to jump into them each morning. The second example was a certain shepherd with a thatched roof hut, a roof he replenished with fresh hay every day, afterwards hauling the goats up to graze. The last example of greater stupidity than his intended was that of a family suffering from an axe—an axe that had been stuck in the basement roof for years and over which the mother wept because someday it might fall and kill her grandchild. Our hero corrected the first man's sartorial conundrum, sent the goats to pasture, and finally removed the dreaded axe, to the great relief and edification of all. And so he married (don't know how the kids fared).

Robert Schuler, inventor of the drive-in church and pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, talks about "Possibility Thinking." Yes, it's recycled Norman Vincent Peale, but there's a point, too: In life, if you don't learn to paint outside the lines a little, you end up being hemmed in by them. I often meet people who can see no way out of their troubles, who feel themselves condemned to an eternal gerbil wheel. No amount of help or kindly suggestion enables them to escape the problem they've set for themselves, and the secret of their misery is how they formulate the problem. As Eliot wrote, "In my end is my beginning." Ever heard something like this?

"I can't go to the doctor because I haven't got a car."
I'll drive you.
"I don't trust your car."
Get a taxi.
"I can't afford it."
So how you gonna pay the doctor bill?
"Oh, I've saved up for that."

Such longsuffering folk appear positively addicted to that famous Transactional Analysis game, "Yes—But." Mired in their vision of impossibility, they see no remedy because they formulate their problem in a way that will admit no solution. In the clinically depressed, this is to be expected; the rest, no matter their IQs, are afflicted with dead-end thinking. I do not label them whiners, rather imagination-impaired, as they "see just what [they] want to see" (John Lennon, "Nowhere Man"), unable to imagine a scenario that might free them from the wheel of past experience.

Back to Mexico. All the house painters I've seen here, save two, use brushes to paint an entire house. This often means they have to paint a surface twice to achieve an ample coat. Even the two I saw using a roller on an outdoor job looked puzzled when it began to rain, and after the red-tinted puddles collected on the sidewalk, they continued—not good for durability.

At the Dupont paint store here in San Miguel de Allende, they actually have an airless sprayer to rent, with which, after some extensive prep work, one man could paint an entire house in a day. But a brush works, so why use a roller? A roller works, so why rent an airless? If God had meant for man to fly, he would have given him wings, right? So why don't we simply go back to finger-painting and forget these new-fangled brushes?

Although initially there are always reasons for doing things a certain way, tradition often becomes divorced from reason over time, and only the exceptional thinker stops to ask, "Why are we doing it this way?" To most of his contemporaries in a given culture, the answer is clear: "That's how we've always done it. Don't ask questions and make trouble. You could put people out of work."

Although my examples thus far are from the everyday, one can see dead-end thinking just as clearly in science, philosophy, literature, even theology. How many people have you heard say, with perfect assurance, "I believe in a loving God but not in a God of judgment?"

How can we know what love is except by the example of good, which requires us to compare good and bad and make judgments of ourselves and others? Dead-end thinking is happy to be rid of the negative aspects of the Deity without stretching its mind to encompass the moral imperative of justice on which love is based. Truth without love is cruelty; love without truth, sentimentality. "There, there, Hitler," just won't cut it—what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled "cheap grace" in The Cost of Discipleship.

Dead-end thinking can also be quite modern, though anachronistic. When I teach the Melic Poetry Tutorial to students online, I require each to write at least one decent sonnet. Many balk at the assignment. "Why do I have to attempt rhymed poetry? I'm a free verse artist," they protest.

Hmmm... My thinking? Since 95% of poetry in English has been written in rhymed verse, and learning a craft differs from self-indulgent regurgitation (even if some say the language has been devalued past repair), perhaps it would be better to understand what the vast majority of name poets have considered poetry before taking off on one's own? In other words, what's the use of breaking rules if you don't know them? This objection against learning the most rudimentary poetic form is but one example of dead-end thinking masquerading as forward thinking.

Lastly, I have a hypothesis (likely irresponsible at my level of learning) about old civilizations and dead-end thinking. The Babylonians may have built ziggurats, but the ancient Egyptians and Amerindians are more famed for pyramids. No one really knows quite how they were built even today, though we have excellent guesses. Nevertheless, in a society as static as ancient Egypt (where life revolved around death), in those long years devoted to pyramid-building likely nothing changed. The Nile flooded, the men worked on, the crocodiles ate a few children—as always—"And so it goes." If things have always been this way, why change? Change came to Egypt in a big way when northern tribes conquered Pharaoh with that new engine of war, the chariot. Afterwards, Egypt could only expel the invaders with chariots—which they did.

When I imagine the sense of time an ancient civilization must develop, a time beyond that measured by changes, I think I sense it here in Mexico, whose Amerindian ancestors built pyramids as well. Mexican religious traditions look very much to the dead, and if not quite so much as ancient Egypt, more than any other Catholic country I've read about. The dead don't care about airless paint sprayers, and what worked before will surely work again. I find this lack of ingenuity, this distrust of progress in the stereotypical Mexican mindset at once fascinating and frustrating.

Here's one last example of dead-end thinking here: Often when you ask for something in a Mexican store they will tell you they don't have it, but rarely do they suggest a substitute, or ask you what you're trying to do. You ask for a tack hammer and they say they don't have any. When instead you ask for a standard hammer, they look at you, eyes implying: "Why didn't you say so in the first place?" God forbid that anyone should have to exercise their brains beyond shelf-stocking. And so it goes.


Previous Piece Next Piece