By Aldis Petriceks
Thought and Matter: A Young Man's Search for Interest and MeaningUploaded: Jul 16, 2018
This piece is the fourth in a multi-part series, telling stories about employees of Ada's Cafe -- a 501c3 nonprofit cafe in the Mitchell Park community center, which works to empower and employ individuals with diverse disabilities. To learn more about Ada's, read the November 2017 PA Online article, or visit www.adascafe.org
“People do not like to think,” Hellen Keller once opined, noting that “if one thinks, one must reach conclusions.” Indeed, in many ways, Keller had her finger on the pulse of the human psyche. Faced with unvoiced insecurities and dissonant cognitions, our modern human imagination often trends toward the unconscious. Social media, cell phones, mind-numbing viral videos all promise a clean escape from the intertangled world that is the human condition. Keller was, in a powerful sense, acutely correct in her observation.
Ms. Keller also, quite obviously, had never met Powell Gaynor.
Sitting in an echo-inducing private room in the Mitchell Park library, I myself had the pleasure to do what Keller could not. On a Saturday afternoon, not long after the sun hit its peak, I was witnessing the expanding engine which is Powel Gaynor’s motor-like mind.
Gaynor is only 21 years old, but in many respects gives the air of someone very much older. His faced is contoured with defined, mature lines, while his forearms have the wiry sinews of an active strength. He lays back in his chair, with an easy smile exuding middle-age composure. His words are careful, considered, yet retain in their meanings a self-knowing certainty. Gaynor distinguishes himself from adolescent immaturity on the one hand, and young-adult restlessness on the other. Gaynor does all these things, exudes all these qualities, from the hidden fount of his taciturn personhood: his thoughts.
“I keep a lot of people in mind,” Gaynor says, staring into a corner of the ceiling. “Though I don’t know if that ever leads to something – that’d be nice.”
Gaynor is, to the untrained eye, somewhat reserved for a young man in the high-noon of life. He is admittedly shy, and rarely engages strangers unless driven by some uniting force. Instead, the reflective and unassuming Sunnyvale native keeps such dynamism for his mind.
“I feel like I sometimes let myself wander a bit,” he remarks, “or I start to think outside the normal ranges.” For those who don’t know him, Gaynor’s thoughts and interests – ancient history, medicine, astronomy, international cultures – appear disparate and unrelated, held together by the loose threading of a mind unsteady. But in truth, there is a sense of something larger, something connected, within all the young man’s musings. To attain a grasp of that contemplative framework, one must first understand the young man himself.
Powell Gaynor was born and raised in Silicon Valley, living with his family in Sunnyvale and attending Mountain View High. From the beginning, there existed a subtle singularity within Gaynor’s life; yet for stretches of time, that uniqueness manifested in solitary difficulty. “I always struggled a bit academically,” he remembers of his middle and high school years, “I wasn’t always keen on what they were teaching.” In fact, as the young man recalls, his mind would often wander during class – tangentially at first, then ultimately to new and unrelated territories.
“I remember sitting in math class, after I had been watching a documentary about pre-history, and thinking ‘I’d rather be hunting woolly mammoths than doing math problems right now.’ ” Gaynor’s expansive and eclectic interests, however, were not random occurrences of a life without foundation. To the contrary, those diverse infatuations were always the definitive feature of his very self-concept. If math class could not hold his attention, it was because his mind was already transfixed on ancient history; if his mind was caught wandering, perhaps that mind was unique in that it had somewhere to wander.
There is a maxim, often attributed to Mark Twain, which goes something like this: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Many a restless child will no doubt identify with this sentiment, but Powell Gaynor of all people exemplifies the idea in its purest notion. Even as Gaynor the student struggled to maintain interest in public school curricula – which, one must admit, have their own disparate and loosely-woven natures – Gaynor the learner was relentless in his pursuit of knowledge.
“I had my own interests outside of class,” he says. “In middle school it was video games; right now it’s astronomy, science in general, history, future technologies.” Today, Gaynor nurtures these varying fascinations both inside and outside the world of formal education. He currently attends San Jose City College (SJCC), and has recently taken particular interest in the field of medicine. In fact, the young man has dreams of leading international humanitarian efforts which incorporate health or healthcare in some way. All the while, he upholds that love for humanity – from the detailed annals of medicine, to the global perspective of humanitarian aid – as an involved member of the SJCC International Students Club.
At present, then, the list of Gaynor’s explicit interests is quite expansive: medicine, international humanitarian work, history, future, multiculturalism, woolly mammoths. One might sensibly ask, “How does this young man fix his attention, let alone his focused thought, on any one of these subjects?” The answer, paradoxically, might be found in what others call his inattentiveness.
When Gaynor was still in grade school, he was diagnosed with ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD is a highly-prevalent, broadly-defined condition in which, as the CDC puts it, individuals “may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors… or be overly active.” At present, nearly 6.5 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the attention disorder – a 42% increase over the past eight years. However, given the broad – some might say too broad – definitions surrounding the condition, these figures are likely confounded by social, cultural, and behavioral perceptions of what a “normal” child even looks like.
Nonetheless, Gaynor does recognize his own spotty attentiveness: “I think [ADHD had to do with the fact that I didn’t focus that much in school.” Even more so, he realizes how the public education system may have not been conducive to his unique learning style. Reflecting on his eclectic interest today, he says that “maybe I would’ve been more interested in history or science if I had just gone at my own pace; but in school, they always just kind of get you through it, whether you’re on board or not.”
Yet as noted, Gaynor has reshaped and reimagined his focus, on a wide-ranging collection of personal and professional interests. In fact, I asked him whether his trouble with attention – his scattered mind, always searching and probing for new thoughts, ideas, and connections – had in some ways bolstered the scope of his multifaceted mind. “I guess so,” he postulates, drawing curious lines around the curves of his mouth, “just seeing things, stumbling across things – it’s nice to have that opportunity, that capacity to be interested in different things.”
As I tried to probe the pluriform mind before me, which itself had no trouble leaping and lunging toward ideas new and old, I came to see a link between Gaynor’s so-called “disorder,” and the chaotic order with which he lives his life. Gaynor is not, at some might put it, a shy recluse, or a man uninterested in the world without. Admittedly, the young man does prefer his private time; but his solitude is rarely sedentary. Rather, the man’s mind is constantly churching, exploring different facets of worldly fixation.
“If I’m not at school I like to just research things,” he notes, with arms folded like a university professor, “then spend some time thinking about what I’ve researched, and probably mix it up with other things I think about.” From what I could deduce about Gaynor’s inner thought life, his world operates somewhat similarly to a tapas bar – one dish of prehistoric anthropology arrives, is chewed for a bit, eventually followed with a serving of the latest NASA news, and so on. “I just switch off between studying something, and freestyle thinking,” he ponders aloud – “on top of homework and everything else.”
Needless to say, most in our modern-day culture either don’t have time for, or don’t very much desire, this kind of constant, mind-pulsing thought life. And that is quite understandable, intuitive even, for Powell Gaynor. In addition to – or perhaps inseparable from – his ADHD, he sees this unswerving penchant for ponderance as yet another of his peculiarities.
Yet this trait can, at times, feel somewhat isolating. Indeed, while Gaynor might not have the intellectual cynicism of an Anton Chekhov character – “When a thinking man reaches maturity,” writes the Russian physician in Ward No. 6, “he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape” – he realizes that it takes a singular sort of person to pursue such a deep and diverse thought life. “I guess that I’m interested in my own things,” he admits.
But still, singularity does not equate to isolation; and it is this very fact which Gaynor is, more and more, trying to incorporate within his life. When I asked him if he has ever felt truly known by a friend or colleague, he responded intuitively: “That’s kind of hard to come by.” But upon further reflection, he out forth a rhetorical inquiry of his own. “I kind of wonder,” he says, looking back to that same corner of the ceiling, “I were more ‘out there,’ how people would see me. My hope is that they would view me in a positive way – like, ‘Oh, you’re into different things [than I am; that’s actually kind of cool.’ ”
Paradoxically – or lovingly, compassionately – Gaynor wants his unique way of seeing the world not to divide him from others, but to unite. His pacing attention, his eclectic interests, are all a means of knowing things. Now – as always, as any person – he wants them to be a means of knowing others: “I have some lessons, you can learn from me, just like I can learn from somebody else.” And if my own time spent with Gaynor is any indication, his words are far from empty. His imaginative mind is a steady source of knowledge, from scientific minutiae to pan-historical human themes. His is a world naturally disposed to different thoughts, different interests, all pivoting between different arenas and selves.
“Some people just do life,” he says, “without thinking much about outside things, or having much of an open mind.” To some degree, Gaynor’s life is a gentle protest against isolationist individualism. His diverse interests – particularly those of humanitarian work and multiculturalism – are a sort of metaphor for an outward facing worldview. The word “metaphor” is derived from the Greek word for “to transfer,” and this young man’s vision seems set on broad and dynamic interpersonal exchange.
This, then, is the paradox of Gaynor’s inward and outward selves. On the one hand, Gaynor is reflective, thoughtful, and finds meaning in his solitary contemplations. He deals in knowledge and information, abundant in the marketplace of his own ideas. But on the other hand, the young man deviates clearly from that stereotyped image of the lonely intellectual, the hopeless philosopher. In reality, he yearns like all of us do – for both an inward- and outward-facing purpose, and one which connects to others in a meaningful way.
“Maybe that’s the trick,” he posits with a diffident grin, “to find something to be really involved in, and hope people will notice it one day.” What Gaynor is saying harkens on that key human yearning: he wants at once to pursue his personal ideas with relentless vigor, while also allowing that purpose within to radiate towards a community without. He enjoys that most tedious of human activities – thinking – so that perhaps others may, one day, partake in the irrepressible motion of his mind. “To me, once I get to know other people, they matter a lot,” he notes, highlighting the inherently relational aspect of his private thoughts. “So my hope is that I matter a lot to the community as well.”
But what does it mean to matter? How can one define or characterize a concept so steeped in social, cultural, and personal nuance? Gaynor is no stranger to these perplexing questions: “It might be a struggle, thinking about the way you matter. Do you only matter because of what you’re doing? Or do you really matter as a person to talk to, or just be around?” For all of his unseasoned youth, all of his attentive impediments, this young man has his precocious finger on the pulse of our very ontology. He is asking the difficult questions, chasing their leads like an investigative journalist. But now comes the crux of the matter: “If one thinks,” Hellen Keller reminds us, “one must reach conclusions.” What, for Gaynor, does it mean for a person to matter? Why should anyone want to matter? Does Gaynor himself – matter?
One should note that, despite the young man’s explorative intellect, these questions are not Gaynor’s own. They are, of course, questions which every human implicitly poses. But for all of Gaynor’s mental activity, his implicit answers are intuitive and pragmatic. “I just hope that what I’m interested in has some sort of impact,” he remarks with a measurable compassion. “Because if you’re only doing things for yourself – I don’t want to say it’s pointless, but for me it wouldn’t be as worth it.”
Worth. Matter. These are loaded and weighty words, which all to often go ignored in the rapid-fire pace of our modern media (and, quite frankly, modern lives). Yet even if conscious thought were to be devoted toward these opaque bastions of human identity, what insight might we glean? From Gaynor’s thoughts and reflections, the answer seems more visceral than Gnostic; more simple than complex. One’s thoughts, actions, and experiences matter in and of themselves; but they matter fully, matter rightfully, in the context of other people. The former notion explains Gaynor’s introspective, inward-facing thought life. The latter explains why now, as Gaynor looks to the future, that life is ready to burst forth with brain power and purpose.
Today, Gaynor’s consciousness still runs at warp-speed, darting from one fixating idea to the next. The young man, all the while, retains and outward quietude which belies that restless nature. As he continues to pursue his studies – which are, at present, still centered around medicine and humanitarian work – he understands that things may change. New opportunities might arise, and longstanding positions – like the weekend gig at Ada’s Café which he has worked for nearly four years – may reach their conclusions. Novel interests may materialize, and old passions may migrate to history. What Gaynor finds meaningful in this world, what he yearns to research and ponder in his oft-stirring mind, may change.
But the central cord which ties all together will remain: “I guess my hope is,” the piquant youth says, “that I would matter.”