The Idea of a Cathedral in Mind

When Katie was teaching art to elementary school students, she did a few lessons involving everyday objects. She hold up a fork, for example, and ask the kids what else it could be. A rocket, where the tines are flames shooting out the back. The arm of a snowman. A candelabra. It was Imagination 101. The idea was to engage creativity, and see things in a different perspective.

There were always kids, though, that when presented with a folk and asked what it could be would yell “a fork!”. Yes, but what else could it be? A fork! they’d yell again, pleased at their cleverness in being able to identify a common object. Note that these are my editorial comments, not Katie’s. She’s far more generous than I.

“A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Pilote de Guerre (1942) 

Over time, though, I’ve come to coin the term “fork people” based on that anecdote. They’re people that cannot see other possibilities. It never occurs to them that other things might be possible. The world around them is a certain way, and they assume that’s just how it is. They can’t fathom that life might be different in other places. That there could be other ways of doing things. A fork is a fork is a fork.

The Idea of a Cathedral in Mind

It’s particularly infuriating, having lived in Europe for the past six years, to hear Americans declare that things aren’t possible. Usually I look around at those very things have have been ongoing, successfully, for decades here. I encounter the same thing in my business, when people declare that something I’ve been doing for years would never work. They’re not invested in possibilities. They don’t have a cathedral in mind. A pile of rocks is a pile of rocks.

The paradox is that I have a hard time seeing fork people as anything other than fork people. I don’t know how to fix the problem of their literal-mindedness, or low openness to experience. I can see the possibilities, if they were willing and able to think a little bit differently, so I don’t think it’s forkist behavior on my part. It’s just frustrating knowing that some people will never change, to the detriment of themselves and others.

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4 Replies to “The Idea of a Cathedral in Mind

  1. Apart from being encouraged in this fork mindset by quite a lot of educational systems, being a fork people is also very safe. Thinking and therefor doubting could result in realising that your situation is not the best, unlike what you were told, and believe. So this then requires action, and changes, which can be terrifying. So better not think in that direction. Also it implies taking responsibility for the present situation or for the change. And this is also either discouraging, terrifying, or being thought impossible. So making no effort is the safest way to go. And eventually becomes the standard mode.

    1. The longer Katie and I live in Europe, the more we’re aware of this. We were taught so much “American exceptionalism”. President Dump Trump even signs something just before the election requiring American Exceptionalism to be taught in schools. So many people believe that the worst day in the United States is better than best day anywhere else, which is how they can accept everything from a lack of universal health care to mass shootings. Nothing changes because they can’t envision that it could be better, only worse.

  2. From my personal experience, schools & many jobs encourage the ‘fork is a fork’ thinking. That is the antithesis of my way of thinking – and it caused me more than a few problems – until I learned to recognize situations that couldn’t tolerate me and how to get away from them.

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