In early May I had a chance to get outside my COVID-19 box and enjoy a long cup of coffee with inventor, humanitarian and friend Jock Brandis. Jock has developed a global reputation because he solves complex problems using unconventional means. He’s even been accused of “thinking outside the box.” Ol’ 45’s enablers insist that “thinking outside the box” is what’s really going on when the president spitballs cures for COVID-19, but I’m not so sure.
Jock doesn’t have his name in neon lights above his house, so it took me a minute to find his home, a dwelling that’s part workshop and part library, a safe haven for problem-solvers. We sat a good distance apart on the back porch and wore masks, per doctor’s advice. Jock kept his broken leg elevated, per doctor’s suggestions. We both tend to respect opinions informed by decades of study and metric tons of empirical research.
Workers weed-whacking a neighboring lawn and the barking of Jock’s dogs, Horace and Hilda, gave our chat a bit of the “normal” that’s been missing from Zoom conversations. We talked about a range of topics. At one point, Jock reluctantly suggested I check out his novel, “The Ship’s Cat,” to see how he solved the scene-sequencing problem I’m having with a story I’m writing.
Reluctant to self-promote? Jock’s humility may be his finest quality. He knows what he knows and knows what he doesn’t know. He’s worked on award-winning films, invented numerous solutions to survival problems, founded a non-profit, written a novel, delivered a TED Talk and been named Humanitarian of the Year in Wilmington. Yet, Jock knows what he doesn’t know and seems genetically averse to shameless self-promotion. The man is clearly Canadian.
We talked about a portable handwashing station he developed for schools in Africa and later tweaked for Wilmington’s homeless population. I chided him. “Where’s the bleach? The hydroxychloroquine dispenser? The alcohol injector?”
Jock scooted inside to feed his dogs. His empathy for dogs added to my sense of safety.
He returned and cracked a late afternoon Budweiser. “No need for needles,” he said, smiling.
On the ride home, I listened to the president spitball another COVID-19 cure. I squeezed the steering wheel, gritted my teeth and asked myself, “Why is the president ‘thinking outside the box’ on national media so much more disturbing than Jock brainstorming on his back porch?”
A week after the porch chat, I watched as a neighbor placed a box next to his trash bin. I had a realization and shouted, “There’s no box!”
Although Jock’s nimble mind may operate outside the limits of my own mental confines, he knows there is a box. He is constrained by the boundaries of rationality. The fundamental mission of the magician, con man and cult leader is to make boundaries of rationality evaporate—to make the box disappear.
As I’ve stated, Jock also readily admits what he doesn’t know. Too often, Ol’ 45 acts like a drunk uncle at the pool that doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, has an authoritative opinion about everything, blames others for his screwups, and calls you a “pussy” for not jumping off the high-dive while he’s resting his umbrella drink on his gut.
Jock’s self-awareness of what he doesn’t know suggests he also possesses a functioning moral compass. Being aware of what you don’t know is a key ingredient to humility, wisdom and compassion. A person doesn’t invent peanut shellers, irrigation systems and portable handwashing stations because his moral compass is spinning wildly or locked on to his insecure ego. One look at Jock’s dogs assures me Jock is not a dangerous man.
So why exactly does Ol’ 45’s spitballing concern me? Like a good scientist, my answers keep evolving. Admittedly, I’m not part of Ol’ 45’s fanbase or voting bloc. But if Jock were president and saying the same things the Ol’ 45 spits out every day, I’d pull him aside. I’d tell him it’s bizarre and dangerous for any president to routinely and publicly broadcast he trusts his gut more than he trusts reason. It’s dangerous when a cult of personality is built around a disappearing box. Any leader with a moral compass oriented to his own ego presents a danger to people he leads.
As we roll toward November, I hope more of us see the box again and understand behaviors we’d barely tolerate from our drunk uncle are dangerous intellectual and moral deficits in any president.