What is thought? “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes. Does this mean that thought makes us real, or that true reality exists only in thought? As I trace my first inclination toward thought, I remember that it came out of feeling. I took equal comfort in the interior of the library as that of the church; each offered quiet and beauty, allowing me to imagine something beyond ordinary time and place.
At the bottom of the steepest hill in my town was the church; at the top was the library, resembling a fortressed castle. I entered both spaces with reverence. it must have felt like a noble deed entering through the high stone arch over its massive wooden doors (a child could barely push open). Its fairy tale appearance was part of its allure, but it was the children’s reading room that I came for, with shelves that came down from a place higher than I could reach. Below them was a sitting ledge, and here and there, books were placed to look upon and choose among.
If I could have described the feeling then, it would have been, “so many books, so little time.” I didn’t go there to do reports, or find information. I went to “hear” the silence, to imagine what was in those books, and ultimately to make the difficult, but somehow delightful decision of choosing only a few of them each time. When I was a younger child, I chose books by the sound of the title and the images on the cover. Why, I don’t know. Silk and Satin Lane: I was drawn to the alliteration of the “s,’ imagining how silk and satin must look and feel (I had never seen either), and the bright pink of the cover with black, silhouetted children holding umbrellas—children whose lives were not like my own.
Stories engendered reveries and imaginations, as did whatever images of paintings or sounds poetry I may have come upon in those early years. Things of beauty fed my soul—transported me away from my hilly town with its crowded streets and drab houses and from my strict Catholic school with its paved “recess” yard, gated with a high, black fence. As I matured, the feelings from images and words became thoughts which nourished another part of me. Thoughts were as real as the one tall, spreading tree in our tiny backyard—the only tree for blocks in our city neighborhood. And, like that tree, which was cut down (after we had moved away), they become part of us, yet transcend us, combine, transform into new thoughts (and sometimes deeds).
I have since learned that thoughts (and words) have the power to change people and things, to transform the world—for better or worse. Once, a face looked out at me from one of the books, a young face like my own, with a sadness in her eyes that I somehow recognized, and a wisdom way beyond her years. It was from that book I leaned about the worst: The Diary of Anne Frank. It was from her that I learned about the Holocaust through her insightful, tender feelings and her clear thought life—from a girl my own age. She was a “future person,” looking to the future—a future we still await. I also learned from her what is most noble and true about being human:
It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals; they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart…. I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I'll be able to realize them! ~ Anne Frank
This one passage has remained with me—and the feeling of it I still experience whenever I encounter the force of a thought that has a shape and a life I can “see,” and “breathe in.” Such thoughts impart hope and are felt as light. They can be called upon again and again as a source of strength, and even of action, which otherwise may not be taken, had they not touched human consciousness and conscience.
I learned that thoughts are also beautiful, like paintings and tall trees, have and give power, embody and impart wisdom. They can create ideals, move us, are the potentiality of deeds, and fan a fire within to forge a life, and are felt as the color of gold. As I was awakening to pain and pleasure, to beauty, to ideas and ideals, an inner seed was taking in the essential elements, nourishing it to put down roots in darkness and silence of soul, and (many years hence) to put forth blossoms of expression—sometimes emerging into the light.
“I think, therefore I am”? Or, is it that “I am, therefore I think”?