Daytime moon over Basin Cove. (Erin O’Mara photo)
The Roaring ’20s were sparkling and romantic, a whirl of dancing and joy, resting atop a foundation of wealth inequality, crime and corruption. Industry had boomed. Technology was changing everything. The unprecedented accumulation of wealth from the end of the prior century meant those standing on piles of money had a different view from the rest.
F. Scott Fitzgerald lived and chronicled the contradictions of the time and he believed, “The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
He knew a thing or two about conflicting ideas. He sold short stories he thought were worthless. He married his wife because he couldn’t stand for anyone else to marry her, but he didn’t like her. He was drunk when he needed to be sober. He was selfish, childish, insightful and distinguished.
He knew, as well as anyone, that rolling with contradictions is a vital skill.
I just finished two amazing weeks of vacation, complete with a long-anticipated family reunion, great food, and long mornings under fluffy blankets with a book. I’m home now and I feel thrilled and bummed out. I’m rested and exhausted. I’d like to get in bed and pull the covers over my head.
I know I’m not alone in experiencing conflicting emotions. Who hasn’t had a moment of feeling both happy and sad, dejected and hopeful, or tired and restless? It’s possible to feel both devastated and grateful when you lose someone you love. It’s possible to fail and be victorious.
The world is full of contradictions that compound as you learn more, grow more and experience more. Even the basics, the most mundane daily tasks, put us in line to meet new people, confront new ideas and grapple with new technology. No matter what we do, there’s an ever-expanding list of contradictions to bump up against.
The recent breakthrough in the ability of artificial intelligence is super cool and bone chilling. I can’t draw, but I can ask AI to conjure up an original picture of anything. That means the next time you see a photo of an adorable labradoodle lounging in a beach chair, you’ll need to wonder if the dog exists or if it’s the product of computer imagination.
Artificial intelligence can also write term papers and news stories and could write this column for me and be wittier and more insightful.
I wonder if AI gets tripped up by phrases like “civil war” or “good grief.” “Pretty ugly” is a conundrum everyone learning English has to conquer. But as a native speaker, I rarely take the time to think about the conflict in the word pairing. Contradictions are so ingrained in our lives we maneuver through them without noticing.
The rule of the pandemic, social distancing, is a contradiction on paper and in practice. We had to isolate to be safe, but human health requires togetherness.
I think what Mr. Fitzgerald explained, though I doubt he knew it at the time, is how nearly all the people of the world persevere. First-rate intelligence means we show up and navigate choppy waters. It means we are all extraordinary and unexceptional.
If he were alive today, I wonder if he might amend his quote for the times? Maybe the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold opposing ideas from your neighbors and still want to invite them over for a beer? Maybe first-rate intelligence is the willingness to try to understand a point of view, even if you’re pretty sure you’ll never agree?
Or maybe first-rate intelligence is knowing when a line is crossed, and things are so out of whack that panic is the only reasonable reaction?
In his life, Fitzgerald navigated economic disaster, uncertain job prospects, war, technological and social revolution, racism, excess, joy, and celebration, and his message isn’t about panic. He didn’t find the contradictions too much to bear, but rather understood that with gifts comes responsibility. He explained that first-rate intelligence means, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
Maybe the essence of first-rate intelligence is knowing hope is integral to our nature. People strive, invent and reinvent, no matter the obstacles in their way. There’s hope in showing up and doing the work, and in that simple act, we prove over and over that nothing is ever hopeless.
It’s winter in Harpswell and as my energy level is hitting a new low, my Vitamin D deficiency is hitting new heights. Right now my lawn is greener and healthier than it was all last summer. But I’ve got vitamins and it’s easy enough to put gas in the mower.
And I, like all of you, have work to do.
Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.