Friday, May 1, 2020


Whimsy, by definition, is a whim, freak, or caprice; but this definition does not take one to the heart of the matter. Whim, on the other hand, provides four meanings as a noun and two more as a verb, one intransitive, one transitive. I am not referring here to the ornithological whim which is but another local name for the wigeon.

whim, noun:
1. A pun; double-meaning.
2. A sudden turn or start of the mind; a capricious notion; a humor; caprice; fancy.
3. A fanciful or fantastic device, object, or person.
4. Any of various machines for hoisting.

Let us forego the fourth definition (at least until we are hoisted on our own petard); and put aside the verbal usage as well. Whims and to whim are rather rare these days. 'A sudden turn of the mind' suits my purpose best; but note that the word seems to range widely from madness and mayhem to joyful meandering. Behind the freak lies chaos; bolstering the joy lies wholesomeness. I have written elsewhere that wholesome and integral seem synonymous to me; and so, too, the words wholesomeness and integrity.

The etymology of the word whim places its origin in the Scandinavian languages. In Norway, kvim is foolery, as in our Tom Foolery, acting the fool, pretending to be mad. In Denmark, vimse means to be giddy, skip or whisk about. A selection of synonyms for whimsy gives some idea of the range of the word:

bee, caprice, crank, fancy, freak, humor, kink, maggot, megrim, notion, vagary, vagrancy

This brief introduction is necessary to support my notion that making a decision is, for the most part, a whimsical endeavor. Deciding, of course, is an integral part of all behavior; so that one might conclude that most of human behavior is, well, freakish or fanciful. Think not? And just how did you come to that decision? Make a list, did you? Pro and con and what-have-you. Enumerated this and that, skipping about until giddy; then, finally, pulling the trigger. Deciding.

This business of decision is a function of one's mind, and can be lumped under the general rubric of problem solving. Just how one goes about solving problems is not well understood by neurologists, psychologists, or the fellow down the block. While it is a myth that one only uses 10% of the brain, the fact remains that homo sapiens only understand about 10% of the brain's function.1

How problem solving actually comes about falls largely into that cloudy 90% area of confusion. Einstein, when confronted with the abstruse, use to go for a ride on his bike. "Intuition is a sacred gift," he said. Intuition. "The rational mind is a faithful servant." Reason. I would have added '... but a faithful servant ...' The intention is to downgrade reason from all-powerful to merely another tool, blunt though I find it, to shape one's thoughts. Trying to decide whether to fish or cut bait, for example, is a common metaphoric conundrum that rarely succumbs to reason. Listing pros and cons is enlisting the aid of that faithful servant, reasoning. This method will barely get you to the door; but allowing intuition to have its say (how is that done, you ask? How much time do you have?) is receiving the gift. Wham, bam, the door slams open. Decision made. Problem solved. Why didn't I think of that! A bit whimsical, this business, don't you think?

If you are struggling with your intuition, not hearing those little voices, it should come as no surprise. All of modern society from public schools to corporate management, from parenting to politicking, is a wet blanket thrown over intuition to keep it down. If not used, one loses the knack.

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.
Anne Lamott

And from 1500 years ago, while the Greeks were poisoning the well of Thought with reason, Chinese mystics were telling stories like 'The Empty Cup.' Many versions of the story exist. Here is mine:

The Magistrate went to the Master seeking advice on the latest outbreak of lawlessness. The Master bade him sit and prepared tea. "The District is all higgledy-piggledy," the man said. "I have done all I can, and am now at an impasse. What should I do? What can I do?"" He wrung his hands in agitation. Sweat beaded across the man's broad forehead.

When tea was steeped and stirred, the Master placed a cup before the portly Magistrate. He began to pour. As his guest looked on, the cup filled. The Magistrate became increasingly anxious. The Master poured. As the cup overflowed, spilling over the table and running off into the man's lap, he pushed himself up with an oath. "Fool," he cried. "What are you playing at?" The Master merely nodded his head. "Just so," he said. "Like this cup, you are much too full of yourself. Emptiness must precede wisdom."

A mind replete with facts, opinions, anecdotes, and preconceived notions, will fail to recognize wisdom. Every time. Such a man with such a mind will not even accept the mildest piece of advice, or the most gentle rebuke. He is lost in the hurly-burly of his mind.

Whimsy, I would suggest, is the function of an empty head. And the back side of whimsy is ... wisdom.

A petard is a bomb, and to be hoisted by one is to be blown up. Shakespeare coined the phrase '...hoisted with his own petard...' for Hamlet, and it has since become something of a cliché.

Anne Lamott is a writer, educator, and political activist from northern California.