This essay was originally written 26 years ago for inclusion in a column (called Kermit’s Korner) which I wrote in the Netwits SIG section of Compuserve. It is as true today as it was then. My writing has (probably) improved, but the technique for keeping track of one’s head has stayed just the same.
One of the unfortunate circumstances inherent in being human is the striking lack of available documentation. Almost everything we can grab off the shelf to peruse is strictly after market material. That is not meant to disparage the medical profession. It is simply to bemoan the lamentable truth that no factory manuals are known to exist.
Unfortunately, the after market material is sorely deficient where it tries to address even the basic operation of the human brain. There is nothing available to the owner regarding how to clean it, tune it up, enhance performance or even run simple diagnostics.
Therefore, when I started the process of analyzing and restructuring my head, I had to draw my own maps, invent my own procedures and buy my own tools. In the end, this may have been fortunate. Since I concocted the similes, I was able to understand them and had no trouble adjusting them as work progressed. The analogies used are incredibly meaningful.
Since it sounded horribly messy, I didn’t bother with a hole saw. I just decided there had to be a service hatch on top. And there it was. It had a combination lock. Harumph! Temporarily stymied, I stopped at that point to gather tools. That was probably the general idea.
I mentally purchased a ladder, plus a lot of ropes and pitons and rock hammers. One has to be able to get to the parts one wants to inspect and service. I’d already seen the service hatch. Scaffolding just wasn’t going to fit. This was obviously going to be a lot of work.
As far as I knew, nobody had even done much serious dusting in there. It was bound to be a mess. So I added lots of cleaning supplies to my kit, clean rags, solvents, cleansers, sponges and even some wax. As an afterthought, I got some oven cleaner.
I also got brooms, mops, buckets and heavy-duty garbage bags. Without even going in and looking, I knew there was a lot of garbage in there. It certainly didn’t feel anywhere near full yet, but one can always use the room.
Having covered access and cleanliness, I considered tools. I’ve maintained a number of mechanical devices and built many things out of wood, concrete and steel. The tools I selected fit my experience. Yours would probably be completely different.
I outfitted myself with the usual assortment of pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches, micrometers, measuring tapes, etc. In case there were extremely messy problems, I procured a huge selection of hammers and chisels. I reserved a jackhammer and a power-wash unit. I was ready.
Back at the hatch, I discovered I knew the combination: left to 6, right to 24, two turns back to 47. The hatch creaked when it opened. I oiled it. Then I noticed it was dark down there. I should have known I’d forget something. Back I went to the Brain Maintenance Supply Center for flashlights and batteries. The clerk smirked at me, knowing I was a novice. Then she sold me a miner’s hat, complete with lamp.
This is all in aid of strongly implying an urgent need for preparation. One needs to select a familiar paradigm. One needs to select well-known tools. There’s no sense even climbing down there if you predestine yourself to be daunted by the unfamiliar. Instead, pre-determine the known qualities that you will find once you start the job. After all, it’s your head.
Once you feel you understand the problem, the general lay of the land, and the tools needed to do the job, climb on in. When I did that, I found a mess. Piles of paper and photo albums everywhere. Tape recordings and videotapes. Standing water. Dirt. Unwholesome critters. Whew!
One must start somewhere, so I picked up the top piece of paper. It was a bill for my tools. Figures. I threw it away. I refuse to pay for virtual tools except in virtual cash. Then I rolled up my virtual sleeves and went to work.
There followed a veritable frenzy of cleaning and sorting. After a while I developed some general rules:
1: If it’s dirty, wash it, wax it and forget it until next time.
2: Discard as you go. Feel free to make snap decisions.
3: Make all the subject piles you want. There’s unlimited room in there.
4: If it’s big and ugly, chisel it off and throw it away.
5: If you don’t know what to do with it, you probably don’t need it.
6: Start a special section for “sentimental value”. Over in the corner, out of the way, nowhere near anything of real value.
7: If it makes you laugh keep it. No matter what it is.
8: If it’s crooked, straighten it.
9: If it scares you, leave it alone for now. Come back to it later.
Just a few months later, my head was neatly organized for an attic. About two-thirds of the mess had been thrown away. The categories made sense and the piles were fairly neat. A lot of room had been left for future expansion. There were scary things in all the corners. There were also an awful lot of corners.
As previously mentioned, there was not much I could do about the foundation. It was pretty solid but some of the parts were fairly ugly. And they turned out to be carved in stone. All I could do was sand off the rough edges, caulk the leaks and remember to carefully watch the parts that I should have outgrown but somehow never did.
And, of course I adjusted things that were off kilter with my wrenches, installed lighting and used up a lot of glue and duct tape. Then I separated the basic facts that dimly shimmered all around me from the things that made me who I was. Facts are facts. They have a life of their own.
The personality category was relatively small. Over the course of a month or so, I looked very carefully at everything in it. I found some things that shouldn’t be there. I didn’t find some others that should have been there. I sorted and reshuffled and reviewed. When I was done, I knew all I could about what had made me who I was at that instant in time.
Finally, I was able to address the problem of who I wanted to be. Stripped to the bare essentials, seen in the glimmering light of my collected facts, I was able to develop a set of rules to govern my behavior.
There was a lot to learn from the mistakes that I had made in prior lives and had just recently thrown away. There was a lot to learn from the close contact I had just had with the foundations of my mind. And there was a lot to learn from the people and concepts that I admired.
I did the best I could to make rules about Right and Wrong, based upon what would make me respect me. That was the guiding principle during the rebuilding process. Not what other people might think. Not what society would have me do. Not what somebody else’s rules would indicate.
A lot of those rules are boring. Many of them may not fit your situation. A very few of my rules form the basis of personal ethics:
1: Keep your relative importance in perspective. And know for a fact that your relative importance is not very.
2: Always assume the person you are dealing with is weaker than you are and do your level best to treat them a little more than fairly.
3: Never hurt anyone with intent unless it is the absolute last resort and is required to keep yourself from perishing. Sometimes not even then.
4: Pay very close attention to others. Make sure you’re not hurting them and if you find you are doing so, by mistake, immediately stop.
5: Listen to everything. You need all the information and help you can get. But make sure that the things you keep are compatible with you.
6: Search carefully for kindred souls and other worthwhile persons. If they need help, provide it. But don’t try to help everyone. There simply isn’t time. Besides, not everybody wants your help.
7: Always, always give much more than you take.
The shiny bright new me was eager to try himself out and he didn’t have far too look for a test. Remember all those scary things we left in the corners? All those things that were looked made us quiver whenever we came near? Each one of those had to be looked at next.
It was easier than it sounds. Once I had developed a set of rules that allowed me to know Right from Wrong and how to apply that knowledge, I found that most of those scary things were decisions that I hadn’t known how to make. Now I did. With the decisions made, the problems simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.
A very few things turned out to be truly dangerous, either to myself or to others. They wouldn’t go away, they wouldn’t be intimidated and they wouldn’t die. I tried, oh I tried. So I did with them the only things I could do.
I herded them all into a corner where I could see them. Then I took inventory. I counted and described and made myself understand the precise dangers involved. Then I made a neon sign that listed each one and put it where I could always see it. I can’t afford to forget about them, even for a second. Hurting is too Wrong.
Then I herded them into the locked black box that all heads have. This is only virtual containment. The scary things can get out any time you let them. But at least you know where they are and don’t have to be scared to walk around inside your own head. Once you make sure they are not free to roam around at will in your mind, you will find that you *are* able to.
You have to make a schedule for going into the black box with them. And you have to do it fairly often. If you face them often enough, you will find that you can kill some of them. Or sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you can learn to laugh at them and they’ll just go the hell away in shame.
The part I just described was the easy part. The hard part is ongoing maintenance. You have to force yourself to go down into your head and carefully inspect it on a very regular basis. Things change very quickly inside a place as complicated as your mind.
If you do it often enough, it doesn’t take long. Clean up the mess of new stuff laying out in the middle of the floor. Throw away what you don’t need or don’t want. Store the rest where it belongs. If you see a pile that’s starting to get messy, straighten it up.
Do a complete check of all the corners of your mind, especially the dark ones. If you discover a new scary thing, try to deal with it. If you can’t, add it to the neon sign and herd the critter into the black box. While you’re in there, see if there’s anything you have learned to kill or laugh at.
Do the dusting once in a while. Wash and wax a few things. Just generally make sure that things are in the best order you can keep them in on that particular day. Remember, minds work at light speed, so this doesn’t take long if you do it one a regular basis.
Several times a year, schedule an extended visit. Look at everything that interests you. Throw some stuff away. Start some new piles. Re-sort a few things. Step back and get the wide view when you’re done. Then carefully examine each and every rule you are living by. Adjust as necessary.
Do until done.