My grandson, Noah, is captivated by Transformers, those toys depicting sentient robots that configure themselves into other forms. The longest hour of my life was when he read me the Ultimate Guide to Transformers, which details the history of every character and all the forms they have ever taken. Mostly I heard about Optimus Prime, the hero who is also a Freightliner cab-over-engine Class 8 truck. While Prime’s strong moral leadership interested me, I suspect it was the extraterrestrial weaponry that really grabbed Noah.
One thing that grabbed me (besides horror at how much money Hasbro was making from movies, books and toys) was realizing that every single Transformer, no matter how insignificant, was capable of transformation.
Some people would say that humans can’t change, don’t transform. We’re incapable of becoming anything other than what we have already been, the product of our culture and upbringing.
I don’t agree.
Yes, I know that without some miracle I will never become a Freightliner truck. But as a human being, the urge and capacity for transformation is built into me. Because humans possess more than one way of knowing things: we need not rely on a single operating system.
Reason—which functions via the capacity to differentiate and compare—is our culture’s primary operating system. We analyze ideas, situations, people. We use our good minds to figure out who’s to blame, who we’ll love, to whom we’ll grant respect. When reading the Letters to the Editor, it’s clear that most of us are trying to reason our way out of the current omnishambles. But while reason is necessary, it is not sufficient.
We also need heart-knowing. Not to be confused with emotion or sentiment, it’s close to intuition, but deeper and more solid. Heart-knowing can hold paradox. Heart-knowing allows the absurdity and contradictions of life to exist side-by-side, teaching us to love those with whom we disagree and to delight in the physical world while lamenting climate change. Heart-knowing holds things too horrific and too wonderful for reason to comprehend. As Etty Hillesum, 20th century Jewish mystic, said, “A poem by Rilke is as real and as important as a young man falling out of an airplane.”
You’re in heart-space if your chest feels open and unclenched.
From this place, it’s possible to grieve the desperate loneliness of our elders without assuming evil intent by the provincial health officer.
Reason doesn’t tell us how to do this, because reason “makes sense” by placing things in their correct categories: “This is good, that’s bad.” But the wisdom of the heart is infinitely wide. It can hold both deep moral indignation and great compassion. We don’t lose our moral compass by being respectful toward those with whom we disagree, by refusing to apportion blame. Heart-knowing contributes a spacious generosity and calm to the “open-loop neural system” that is our shared mental world.
If solutions are possible, they will be found in the wisdom of the heart.
So move over, Optimus Prime: human Transformers have the real gonzo feature!