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The Origin of Ideas

Once, after I had delivered what I thought was a rather commonplace observation as a part of a funeral message, two friends of mine who were both ministers came to me and wondered where on earth I kept coming up with these ideas? All I had said, as we stood standing at the grave side, was that the cemetery is not a place of death, but a place of love. Just look around you at the flowers, the careful maintenance of the grounds, the expressions of love and respect on the tombstones. Where would you go to find more love concentrated than in a cemetery. Why on earth people should fear graveyards has always been a mystery to me. No demon could ever be comfortable in a place with so much love expressed.

But my friends did make me think. Where do my ideas come from? That particular idea had occurred to me first in, of all places, a pet cemetery. Stand by the grave of my faithful old bird dog, I looked around and saw more love than I had seen in a very long time. Peopleís pets do become a part of the family it seems, and they canít bear to throw the carcase of a faithful friend on the trash heap. But even then, I had only answered the question of where the idea arrived, not where it had come from.

My friends thought there was some great mystery to the acquisition of ideas. But ideas come by me unbidden all the time. All I have to do is grab them and apply them. But I donít think ideas can find much room for development in uneducated or uncurious minds. I am not necessarily talking about formal education, although that is important. I find educated people can be as devoid of ideas as uneducated people for that matter. But there are many ways to learn about the world, and most of them do not involve formal education.

Most of the interesting people I meet are well read and have been exposed to a wide variety of experience in life. Recently on a cruise I was lucky enough to be seated for dinner with a gentleman who had commanded a British PT boat in the far east during World War II. The British boats were steel and larger than the American version, and this fellow had commanded a squadron of them. Every night at dinner we plied him with questions about his travels and his experience. He was not a garrulous man and it would have been easy to let him sit quietly and let the rest of us talk. We could have bored him stiff with our stories. Instead, we drug his stories out of him piece by piece, learning in the process why he was hard of hearing (a bomb had gone off next to him and ended his hearing in one ear).

Now I never know when an idea I picked up at the dinner table on that cruise will come rolling back to me when I am trying to find a way to get an idea across to an audience, but I can be almost certain that it will. That could never happen, though, if I had been talking instead of listening. You will not run into that many interesting people in your life. When you do, you must take full advantage of it, because listening to interesting and experienced people will make you more interesting.

And because we donít meet that many interesting people, we need to go looking for them on the shelves of the library. You will find a few of them on television, but television is aimed at the popular (read, lazy) audience. And you are stuck with whatever the producers want to show you. At the library (or Amazon.com) you get to choose the intelligent, interesting people whose acquaintance you want to make. Use television for light entertainment. Use books to develop an idea data bank.

The value of formal education is discipline. There is a set of books you need to read. Formal education sees to it that you read those books. If you have the personal curiosity and discipline to read the right books, you donít need a formal education to be interesting. But one way or another, you have to read. People who donít read make boring speakers because they usually have no original ideas.


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