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by DK Holland
It was a beautiful day in Dallas, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The president’s motorcade rolled down Elm Street where a crowd of spectators had gathered; among them a single, well-dressed man stood silently under an open black umbrella. After the heart-breaking, mind-altering, traumatic event that followed—after a bullet blew out the brains of the vital, handsome JFK a world of hope was shattered. And many would condemn this unknown man in the crowd (later dubbed The Umbrella Man) as sinister, up to no good.1
For many years, those who perused the grainy film that commemorated the murder of JFK worked hard to rationalize Umbrella Man’s menacing presence: He was part of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. He was a look out. He was a signal man. There was even a theory that he had a poison dart gun in a contraption under his umbrella. Umbrella Man had paralyzed Kennedy with a dart to ensure the marksman's bullet would be a direct hit. A book was published positing this particular theory.
Eleven years after that fateful day in Dallas, Umbrella Man was tracked down, asked to explain himself at a Congressional Hearing about the assassination. He testified that his umbrella symbolized British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella. It was a visual protest against JFK’s father’s role in appeasing Hitler in 1938 when the elder Kennedy had been America’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. Many European governments had rationalized that they wanted “peace” with the Nazis as Hitler expanded his reach across Europe (most dismaying considering what we know today). Who would have ever guessed that Umbrella Man’s demonstration that day in Dallas was about caving in to evil? Ironic isn’t it? The Umbrella Man had himself been mistakenly tagged as a symbol of evil.
These days we are urged to “say something, if you see something.” But how can we ever really trust that we actually understand what we are seeing?
The common sense rules of daily life make it possible for us to function yet they can be exaggerated or oversimplified or overly rigid: Don’t take a ride with a stranger. You will get raped. Lock your doors or someone will break in. Keep your gun loaded, you’ll need it. While we try to control life, life proves over-and-over again to be more random and unknowable than reliable and predictable.
Our common sense is often dumbed down, warped by fear, as the reality, the righteousness of Umbrella Man illustrates. We can’t help it. It’s in our wiring to make assumptions, create stories without applying critical thinking. Forewarned is, after all, forearmed. And yet what we really should be forearmed of is to challenge our common sense responses.
“If the solution seems obvious, you probably don’t understand the problem.” —Cecelia Holland2
MAKING COMMON SENSE
What does the term common sense mean to you? “Commoners have common sense.” Oh really? Aristocrats don’t? “Common sense is what we can all agree on.” But we don’t agree on much, do we? “Common sense is native intelligence.” That’s what Webster’s tells us—but native to where? Aren’t we all from different places? It’s common sense in some lands to murder your sweet sister who’s disgraced your family’s honor by falling in love with the wrong guy. Common sense tells me, that’s murder. “Common sense is sound, practical, ordinary, good judgment,” But what about the lynchings of African Americans (which occurred in the US until the 1960s)? Common sense told the lynchers that “niggers” were not entirely human anyhow. What about the common sense notion that women should not be allowed to vote? The stress could harm their uteruses (or so thought the men who had the vote). “Common sense is what’s blatantly obvious.” And simply insulting to anyone who doesn’t see it that way.
Why do all these contemporary definitions fail to take into account the complexity of modern society? Not to mention how our nervous systems process information? Consider the common sense of ancient wise men Aristotle, Buddha and de Tocqueville much of which is still relevant today.
COMMITTEE OF ONE
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (second century BC) saw common sense as perceptions resulting from the integration of all our external senses (touch, smell, hearing, sight, taste) combined with a sixth intuitive sense together forming an inseparable committee of one.3 In Aristotle’s view, humans, unlike animals, pull it altogether through their integrated six senses. This is because the Greeks saw people as far superior to animals (i.e., closer to the gods than the gutters). We know now that not only do animals have intuition, but they put it to better use than we do (e.g., dogs can sense when a person is about to have a seizure). It’s more likely that human common sense is handicapped by our human tendency to over rationalize.
DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
When we look at a flat image, we narrow down to just two senses—sight and instinct. The Umbrella Man, the man, not the symbol, was judged based on grainy photos, wild imaginations and a whole lot of anxiety. This warping of our senses happens far more often than we realize as our world moves from face to interface limiting our sensory scrutiny, through distorted, retouched images: computer and television screens, magazines and film. In person, you might get a sense when someone is lying, but on air, when the person is reading from a teleprompter or when reading an article, the goal is to keep you engaged, get you to buy into something—the priority is not necessarily the truth. How do you apply common sense when sorting out what you are seeing or hearing?
The word yoga is Sanskrit for yoke (to harness) or unity (to connect). Since the fifth century BCE Buddhists and Hindus have sought to align the mind with the chakras—the pressure points of the body including the genitals, gut and heart—through meditation and yogic exercises. Only by calming the mind can you hope to gain perspective on the world and your relationship in it (i.e., harness your common sense). We never speak of our feelings as coming from our head: They come from other parts of our body—our heart, our stomach, our ass, our sexy parts.
After touring the rough and tumble United States in the mid 1800s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville became captivated by the individualistic society that was emerging here, famously analyzing this Great Experiment in Democracy in America (a book which is still studied today). He coined the phrase “habits of the heart” to describe the beliefs he observed.4 We “shape mental habits” which become “the sum of the moral and intellectual disposition” of people in their relationship to society. In other words, you pull from what you think you know, in your heart, and that forms your values and assumptions about the world. That’s your common sense. That’s what de Tocqueville found remarkable in America 150 years ago.