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Ignorance is Bliss?

Last night I watched “House.” This is a religious observance for me, and it has long been my belief that Gregory and I are soul-mates destined to be together, regardless of the facts that I am married, and that he doesn’t so much exist. It would be a terrible relationship anyway, what with both of us tending towards the melancholy and sardonic; it’s been my observation that relationships work better when at least one of the parties is capable of a little joie de vivre.

Although the medical storyline is often predictable (“it’s TTP-it’s ALS-it’s lupus-it’s his kidney-it’s his spleen-it’s his lungs-let’s drill a hole in his brain-let’s remove his spleen-let’s break into his house and snoop”) that is not usually the aspect of the show that interests me. Mostly, I am interested in the characters, and enthralled that they are allowed much more latitude to change and grow than the more static types in the average hour-long drama. Last night, however, I was all about the case.

The situation, in brief, was that the Major Patient was a former genius who had been living a “regular” life for many years, including a job as a courier, and marriage to a woman of average intellect. In the course of his treatment for Mysterious Symptoms,  it was discovered that he had been “robo tripping” by ingesting cough syrup containing DXM, along with a little daily alcohol. He had been doing this not to get a buzz, but because the effects of the drug made him dumber, and therefore able to live happily with his ordinary job and his ordinary wife. After having the drug flushed from his system, he returned to drawing complex molecular structures, but was miserable because, in his natural state of genius, he could not love a wife with an IQ 91 points lower than his own. (He compared her, unfavorably, to “a Gibbon”). In the end, with House’s tacit blessing, Major Patient went with the cough syrup, the courier job, and the wife, choosing to shutter the part of his brain that offered unlimited potential for both achievement and suffering.

This story line stirred up an issue I have wrestled with for at least 30 years. I am not a genius (and my husband is, by no stretch of the imagination, a Gibbon), and I am unlikely ever to be diagramming molecular structures. I do, however, have intellect of a kind that seems to result in excess thinking that is rarely productive and often misery-inducing. I am not speaking here of mere worry, but of a brain crowded with cacophonous noise. This is not “Sam’s English grade is a ‘B;’ I wish it were an ‘A'” but “How can Sam not love reading like his father and I do? Don’t we set a good example? Didn’t we read to him enough when he was little? Will he ever enjoy reading? What kind of life can a person have without reading? Is there something I can do? No, wait, I have to let him be who he is. But maybe if I found the right book?” I don’t forget much, I tend to be obsessive and competitive, and I am often working and re-working ideas, disaster scenarios, and new menu ideas while obnoxiously calling out “Jeopardy” answers. My brain stops this jangling noise when I sleep, when I drink more than I can actually drink without getting sick, or, as I discovered recently, when I am taking Vicodin, Flexeril, and Valium at the same time. A legit and medically indicated chemical lobotomy, but a chemical lobotomy nonetheless.

So would I be happier if I were dumber? Leaving aside all collateral issues of socioeconomic consequences, would I be happier if I were living my life with a lower IQ. (Well, it couldn’t really be my life because I am married to a man who thought it was hot that I was smart, and I am the mother of a child whose favorite class is Advanced Math. I think this scenario only works if I am less intelligent and living somebody else’s life).

If my IQ were lowered just the right amount, I would likely lose the ability to write this blog, to do either of my jobs, or to read the book I’m reading with any real comprehension. My grades would have been lower (except in math, where there was no “lower”), I might not have been able to get through law school, and I would be less capable of making rapid connections and synthesizing facts and concepts. I would probably stop reading theology and literary criticism. I might watch the same things on TV, but be able to relax and enjoy them more without focusing rigidly to make sure no plot point passed me by. I might possibly accept things more readily rather than scheming frantically to fix, change, or otherwise re-cast reality in a way that it suited me better. I would undoubtedly be less judgmental, less analytical, and more at ease with myself and other people.

Or not. The problem with this experiment is that it’s nearly impossible to separate intellect from personality. I have “smart girl” neuroses, as do legions of women, and a lower IQ would not necessarily make me happier, just worried about a whole different set of things. The genius on “House”did not just lower his intellectual functioning by drinking cough syrup; he mellowed his harsh.

Intellect is not a personal attribute that can be sifted out from an individual’s history and wiring, from upbringing to emotional temperature. Even with an objective IQ score significantly south of the real deal, I might have become interested in theology and literature because I grew up in a household in which people were interested in, and talked about such things. Similarly, I might also be just as neurotic and hypersensitive as I am, perhaps about people thinking I was dumb, instead of thinking I was odd, or ugly. I just don’t encounter many people in my daily life who are worry-free, and some of the people I see must be of “average” intelligence or less; otherwise it’s not “average,” right?

I’ll never know. There is no cough medicine in the house, and it seems like poor judgment to run out and buy some in time to lower my IQ for Thanksgiving. (Although I might be happier as I mashed two kinds of potatoes and dissolved sugar for the cranberry sauce). My best guess is that ignorance is not bliss; it’s just all the same stuff with less compulsion to write in iambic pentameter or compose tone rows. Sanity, or at least a sunnier disposition and a more even keel might be bliss, but would mean the loss of all of the edge and darkness that make me who I am. Probably, we are all meant to be exactly who we are, and the work of our lives is to “accept the things we cannot change; have the courage to change the things we can; and possess the wisdom to know the difference.” Without cough syrup.