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September 6th, 2019
Kids aren’t born with this capacity: the ability to look at something new and in jaded fashion and full of doubt, respond: so, what?
Kids quickly learn this of course, because the attitude and emotional sharpness that it conveys is a method for gaining clout among peers. Responding with ‘so what?’ conveys that one either has a quickness of mind that can work through all the ramifications on the spot, or that the issue has already been mentally digested at some prior time.
Compare this to a younger child who hasn’t developed this particular variety of conceded pain-in-the-assery.
The youngest children have a sort of lantern consciousness, as Alison Gopnik has termed. In comparison most people as they get older narrow their focus and become more like a spotlight. But the child is hoovering up information from all directions in order to get a handle on reality and make a useful model of how it generally works.
The so what? attitude is antithetical to the intake of information. It may even be one step removed from a bullshit detector.
In theory, both ‘bullshit’ and things we respond to with so what? constitute matters that we’ve deemed useless to be concerned with. They are a waste of time.
This process is one that we increasingly engage in as childhood recedes from our experience. Children can find almost anything interesting, but as we get older, we start applying filters and barriers of entry for certain things that we’ve assumed no longer need our attention. Or rather, we block out things that we have deemed would do us little benefit if we were to grant more attention.
This is inevitably necessary because time is a finite resource of unknown size and we do not want to squander our short breath of existence. Not to mention the energy and attention required to fulfill the needs and obligations of just getting on in the world. Money, food, shelter, family, etc.
So what? is like the chain on the door. We open the door to see who is there, but hold in reserve this extra measure of security to keep our mind from being suddenly and totally occupied from something that might be a waste of time.
Imagine for a moment the complete opposite, if we had no ability to filter or block things out: if every little thing caught and completely took over your attention. Presumably there are people who suffer from some kind of condition that sounds like this, and by all accounts it makes getting on in the world quite a bit more difficult.
However, for those who do not suffer from such aimless attention, it would do well to meditate on all the lost goods that potentially slip by our experience by writing things off too early with a quick and summary so what?
The great irony is that most people have not optimized their life around their most important resource: that of time. Most people have the huge majority of their attention, and certainly the portion of the day when attention is most powerful, devoted to a job. Often a job of little dynamic value that becomes routine after a short interval. A person’s neural frameworks grow habituated and soon enough the whole behavior is self-perpetuating. The reaction of so what? becomes, not a defense against potential bullshit, but a defense of habitual behavior patterns that are entrenched by years of routine.
To actually be open to knew information constantly poses a threat to this habitual behavior, because if we take in new information, it may quite possibly change our model of the world and subsequently give rise to an important question, namely:
what are you going to do now because of this new information?
This question is a direct threat to routine behavior.
The idiom Set in their ways comes to mind. There is a certain degree of ossification that occurs with people’s thought patterns and behavior, particularly if an individual has not created a personal directive to seek out destabilizing information -in the name of self-education.
So what? should constitute a phase in an individual’s development – an experiment with ways to filter information. Unfortunately it too can become part of the ossification that occurs with people’s thought patterns. So what? can become a default response…
And in this way,
a person enters a prison of their own construction.