Many Threads, One Processor

My friend J. once told me that he liked Dostoevsky, but didn’t find him realistic. He cited the scene in Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov and Razumikhin are approaching the house of the investigator Porfiry Petrovich, and poor Rask. is agonizing over how to behave in front of Porfiry:

“I shall have to pull a long face with him too,” he thought, with a beating heart, and he turned white, “and do it naturally, too. But the most natural thing would be to do nothing at all. Carefully do nothing at all! No, carefully would not be natural again…. Oh, well, we shall see how it turns out…. We shall see… directly.”

He quickly decides to cover up his guilt by appearing extra gregarious, so he begins to make fun of Razumikhin for being interested in Dunya:

“You are like a summer rose. And if only you knew how it suits you; a Romeo over six foot high! And how you’ve washed to-day—you cleaned your nails, I declare. Eh? That’s something unheard of! Why, I do believe you’ve got pomatum on your hair! Bend down.” …

Raskolnikov laughed as though he could not restrain himself. So laughing, they entered Porfiry Petrovitch’s flat. This is what Raskolnikov wanted: from within they could be heard laughing as they came in, still guffawing in the passage. [emphasis added]

To me, this kind of thing is what makes Dostoevsky a genius: his characters always have several motivations for everything they do, and neither they nor we (nor, maybe, Dostoevsky!) are sure what all of those motivations are; and all this passes in a split second, during a momentary pause in the conversation. Raskolnikov’s internal monologue has been my own, any number of times, before walking into an alarming social situation.

But, if I was understanding J. correctly, this was exactly what didn’t resonate with his own experience. He felt that real people aren’t that fraught, that complicated.

But some people are. Dostoevsky evidently was, and I certainly am. That’s not a boast. Simplicity of mind and heart is something I both admire and envy, and I’d much prefer to be thinking only one thing at any given time, to know why I’m doing what I’m doing when I do it, to operate on only one level at a time.

In geek speak, I’d much prefer a processor that wasn’t multi-threaded.

I think that there’s even something of sanctity in being able to live with this kind of simplicity. St. Thérèse’s Mother Superior told her: “The closer you come to god, the more simple you become.”1 And then there is the Zen principle of Doing One Thing At a Time, which some (I’ve heard) practice with such rigor that they won’t even read while they’re pooping.2

Not that it’s praiseworthy, or blameworthy, to be born with any particular mental disposition: I don’t think I earned my own multithreadedness any more than J. earned his comparitive singlethreadedness.3 But everyone starts at a different path on the road to virtue. One man is born with more courage, another with more prudence, and all are charged with the task of supplementing their lacks.

And then simplicity of mind is not quite the same thing as simplicity of heart. I hear that Aquinas, however many volumes of philosophy he produced, however fine his distinctions and subtle his syllogisms, still, when he confessed his sins, confessed them with the simplicity of a child of six.

This is why we Catholics don’t have to accuse philosophers of thinking too much, or mendicants of thinking too little — or, for that matter, Pope Benedict of having been too fancy or Pope Francis of being too minimalist. Many gifts, but one spirit. Many parts, but one body.

Or again, if each of us is a different kind of machine, our job is to keep that machine running as well as it can. The surprising thing is how well we can understand each other after all, and learn from each other, and be friends with each other.

When I was young, I fantasized about having a twin, someone who would think like me, like what I liked, understand me through and through. That was because I was a narcissist.4 By this time, I’ve had enough of myself to last a lifetime.

I like myself fine, but I’d rather spend time with people who are not me. Thank God there are so many of them!

1 I couldn’t actually find this quotation anywhere, but I did find it paraphrased in a bunch of places. Anyway, if she didn’t say it, somebody did.
2 My knowledge of Zen Buddhism, or any kind of Buddhism, is almost nonexistent, and the parts that aren’t nonexistent come through a thick filter of Americanism, so it’s anyone’s guess whether this is really a Zen thing. Still, I think it’s a good principle.
3 Nor, for the record (hi, J.!), do I really believe that anyone is actually totally, purely singlethreaded. My point is only that the level of threadedness varies a surprising amount from person to person.
4 This may well be a presumptuous use of the past tense.

14 Comments on “Many Threads, One Processor”

  1. Anna says:

    Scenes like that are the reason I try to read Crime and Punishment at least once every few years. But I just assumed EVERYONE identified! Oops.

  2. LaLaLand says:

    That’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved C&P: I can relate to Raskolnikov in his mental anguish and thought streams.
    Oh, and I’ve always had a crush on Razumikhin…. 😛

    But I’m glad you pointed out that neither thought process is better. I have an extremely complicated mind, and it can be torturous sometimes, and it is fraught with anxiety and self-hatred, yet I feel like God gave me this mind for a purpose. (The only problem being that He meant it to be a HEALTHY complicated mind.)

    There are some people I know who have such simplistic minds and thoughts that it’s kind of frustrating. But I don’t envy them at all. As distressing as it can be to be an “over-thinker” I would not be anyone else if you paid me.

    God gives us each our own mind and heart, and there is no “better” way to be, save that this particular mind and this particular heart is holy.
    Much the same way that you can’t blame a priest for not getting married – his vocation from God was to be a priest, and that is the best thing he can be. 🙂

  3. Sarah says:

    This reminds me of when my sister and I discussed ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ recently.

    She said she hated the book so much she couldn’t even finish it, because she thought the character was unrealistically whiny and neurotic and he annoyed her.

    Well, he annoyed me too, at times, not least of all because so many of the character’s thoughts– the whiny, annoying, neurotic ones included or maybe especially– reflected my own.

    As I was reading the book, I remember wondering how it got to be so popular when the problems he has are problems most people don’t seem to understand. And after talking to my sister, I realized that perhaps most people really don’t understand it, but, even though there are lots and lots who do.

    A particular priest who I really do like and care for a lot once hurt my feelings by scolding me for being “so complicated.” and advised me to try being simpler. I think about that a lot and wonder if he’s right and if I need to work on being “simpler.” But I don’t really know how.

    1. Yeh, I think “stop being so complicated” is about as useful a thing to tell somebody as “stop being in so much pain”.

  4. Sarah says:

    Oh, one more thing…

    I noticed recently that, at 21 years old, I have deep wrinkles in my forehead, between my eyebrows.

    I saw this coming years ago. My default expression involves a perpetually furrowed brow, as if I’m worried or thinking very, very hard about something. I noticed when I was a teenager and tried all the time to relax my face. It was a conscious effort, in which I widened my eyes and raised my brows back to a normal-looking position. But as soon as I stopped thinking about my face and started thinking about literally anything else, my eyebrows would re-furrow.

    I think it’s kind of funny, now.

  5. JBT says:

    Whenever I think of something funny, I can feel my brow sort of unclenching. It feels neat. Anyway, furrowed is foxy. This is why models never look like humans–even when they’re “doing pensive,” they still sort of emanate vapidness. Even when they’re actually intelligent people! I can just imagine the photographer going, “No no no, look vapid! Vapider! DARTH VAPIDER!!!”

    1. Sarah says:

      Oh my goodness, this comment was awesome. “Furrowed is foxy” made my day. Thanks for that, haha 😉

  6. Dubravka says:

    You’d think we all know that not everyone thinks and feels the way we do but there is a big difference between knowing and KNOWING. 🙂

    God doesn’t want to make us somebody else. He just wants to make us fully us. That’s were the simplicity is – in being who you are supposed to be and getting rid of the extra baggage.

    We just have to stop wishing we had twins and understand that even those who we think are like us are never really like us. (Thank God for that!) It’s a learning process, I guess. 🙂

  7. Patty says:

    Great post. By the way, that quote about becoming simpler the closer you get to God? That was my husband. Might have been the Mother Superior, too, but that’s something my husband says all the time. And it’s something to which I aspire.

  8. Ryan Adderton says:

    I love the distinction you made in this post. The simplicity of mind is neither good nor bad, but the simplicity of the heart is to be immensely valued. It is too bad that in my experience a the more multithreaded my mind is at the time, the more I lack the simpleness of heart. I wonder if the more consistently singlethreaded people (man that is hard to say without sounding condescending) have an easier time being more simple in heart. Great post today.

    1. Ryan Adderton says:

      On second thought, maybe it is because of the complexity of my heart that my mind becomes more multithreaded.

  9. Rivka says:

    As someone with Aspergers, I have found that us Aspies (sorry for bringing the subject round to my own group. I don’t think you’re an Aspie Stev, BUT I think there are a lot of things about us that you would really understand) are the ultimate example of people who are complex in mind, yet simple in emotion. Like you, we proceed with careful elaborate analysis in social situations. But I learned recently that many typical people can experience more than one emotion at a time. For emotional Aspies (some are unemotional, others very emotional) there is only one powerful emotion at a time.

  10. Anna Macdonald says:

    Your footnotes are my favorite part of this post.

    Also… while I don’t know that it has reduced the multithreadedness of my thoughts, necessarily, I have found that bringing all those threads – especially the ones most trying to hide – before God and asking for His help and letting Him bring some peace to them has, well, brought some peace to them.

  11. Richard R. says:

    I’ve been thinking about this entry for the month and a half since you first posted it, and what stuck out to me was the idea that desiring a twin in your youth made you a narcissist. I was troubled by that statement, because I too harbored the fantasy in my younger days (alas, so far removed), and I would certainly not have thought of myself then, or even now, as having been a narcissist… unless, of course, narcissism is compatible with self-loathing, massive inferiority complexes, and, of course, rampant self-deprecation.

    Rather, through my anthropological studies (3 graduate credit hours, thank you), I have come to realize the entirely human, very basic need for us to both know and to be known. It is the reason for all relationships (romantic, certainly, but also platonic)—the desire to come to an understanding of another, and for that understanding, completely unconditional, to be returned. Without it, interpersonal relations would be unnecessary… in fact, that need is exactly what makes us NOT narcissists, because in that need we are not self-sufficient.

    It may seem that, because the person we were desiring to know and be known was in fact a genetic copy of ourselves, that my point is lost and that narcissism was in fact the base of the structure. I would argue, however, that if such were the case, a twin would be unnecessary. Desiring someone to have been around from the beginning, to be most likely to like what we like and understand what we feel, but to have that person still be someone *other*, makes it about a relationship, rather than intrapersonal, asexual, self-absorption. That person would be the most likely person to fulfill our perceived needs, but they still would be someone besides ourselves. He would alleviate the need to go and meet others to try to known and be known, certainly, but the relationship would still have to be built, however easily, because he is not you or I. There would be so much less effort involved.

    In short, I don’t think that desiring a twin as a youth made either of us a narcissist. At worst, I think it simply made us lazy.

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