It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Once upon a time, I worked on a farm in Georgia, which was home to 12 mentally challenged adults. It was my turn to cook the next day, and I’d decided to bake some bread for dinner — dinner for 30. I put the 10 cups of flour, yeast, salt, etc., together and waited for it to rise. It didn’t.
After two hours, I tossed the first batch and tried again. Same result. I was up all night. I finally gave up and baked muffins. The next day I told my cabin mate, Mary Ruth, what had happened.
“Which yeast did you use?” she asked.
I showed her the can of yellow flaky yeast.
“That’s nutritional yeast,” she said. “We put it in the juice for the Down’s Syndrome clients — they need the Vitamin B.”
Great stuff, this yeast ... but not for baking bread. I had never even heard of it. I also hadn’t intended to waste 20 cups of flour. I just didn’t have the information I needed to do it right.
It’s like that in a lot of things we do. We try to solve problems, improve things, create things or get rid of them, but we often don’t have the information we need to do it right.
Remember the ’70’s sitcom “Happy Days?” In one episode, the too-cool biker dude, Fonzie, had insulted one of the kids, Ralph, and was trying to rehearse an apology.
“Listen, Ralph,” he began, “I was wrrrsst ... I was wrrrffft ... I was ... not quite right.” The Fonz couldn’t get the word “wrong” to come out of his mouth. He settled for being “not quite right,” and his apology was accepted. But what’s the difference between the two, and what makes it so darned threatening to admit either one?
We used to think it was right to kill off an entire species of animals if it was bothering you, until we learned about biodiversity, keystone species and the vacuum effect. We thought DDT was a great pesticide until it was linked to human birth defects. We thought xeriscaping was the way to go in a dry climate, until we realized that we need trees for shade and moisture retention, and that rocks reflect heat back into the sky above us, diverting the rain clouds.
We used to think it was OK for our pets to have lots of babies, until we started euthanizing four million animals every year due to overpopulation, and learned that diseases (including cancer) are far less likely in a spayed or neutered animal.
We learn by doing. We learn from our mistakes and our accidental successes, and from others’ examples, experiences and expertise. We learn when we allow ourselves to.
Brian Sharp, director of Marine Mammal Rescue and Research for IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), takes great satisfaction in “the challenge of solving a problem.” He’s also seen how coming up with better solutions energizes his team.
In 2013, a group of high school students in Sturgis, Mass., invented a better device for carrying stranded dolphins off beaches and into rescue vans. MIT furthered work on the project, which IFAW now lovingly calls their “Dolphin Cart.”
And yet, even when presented with a better or more “right” way of doing something, many choose to ignore it. They keep right on doing the same things the same way and getting poor results or, worse yet, causing harm.
Is this then, the definition of insanity? Is it the definition of inhumanity? Is that the difference between being “wrong” and being “not quite right?”
I work in corrections. All my clients are, or have been locked up. They sit in my office, classes and groups, having lost everything — including their freedom, and yet for many, it seems that as their bodies are locked up — their minds begin to open.
“I’ve messed up,” they humbly admit. “I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t have the information I need to do things right. Teach me a better way.”
People often ask me if I’m afraid working in prisons. But honestly, people running around on the “outside” who don’t challenge or question their beliefs and behavior, who do things over and over even if they’re ineffective or hurtful, who close their minds and hearts to accepting a better way .. .those are the people who scare me the most.
(Colleen Dougherty’s 13-year history in animal welfare includes work in a veterinary clinic, shelters in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and currently as a volunteer for the Valencia County Animal Shelter. She has been a speaker at the NM State Humane Conference on three occasions, presenting talks on caring for small mammals in the shelter setting, and compassion fatigue in animal welfare. She holds degrees in art and counseling therapy, and certificates in eco-psychology and feline massage therapy.)