One Thousand Words on Intelligence and Happiness

Working in an office off the lobby of city hall, we get to know some real characters.

There’s the guy who once fell down in the crosswalk a few years ago and tells us the story every time he visits.

And then there’s Sam, who I swear is Truman Capote’s long lost twin. He sounds just like him, or at least just like Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s version of Truman Capote.

Another man stops in almost every day to fill us in on the latest sports scores, complete with play by plays.

But my favorite is Debbie.

For as long as I can remember Debbie, an adult woman with a developmental disability, has gone next door to the recreation department twice a week to bring their office recycling downstairs to the city’s large recycling bin.

She also feed their goldfish.

A couple years ago, the recreation director brought Debbie and her aid Steve over to meet us and ask if she could collect our recycling too.

Since we are technically supposed to dispose of our own recycling and not put it in the city’s bin, we said yes. It seemed like a loophole.

Ever since, Debbie visits us twice a week too.

We don’t have a goldfish, but she takes one of each of our flyers, brochures and donation envelopes. I don’t know if the brochures end up at her house or the recycling bin, but she loves to fill her pockets with them.

She also tells us all about her day ahead. The schedule always includes running errands, buying groceries and lunch at Denny’s.

Sometimes she’ll talk about what she did on the weekend too.

Then she takes the recycling downstairs. But she always stops back to shake our hands and to tell us to “behave” before she uses the rest room and heads on to her next stop.

Some days Debbie is more talkative than others. And she usually gets bored quickly if we engage in conversation with Steve that doesn’t include her. More than once she’s announced, “I’m ready to go” in the middle of a conversation between Steve and our box office associate, Ryan.

Truth is I think she may have a little crush on Ryan and that’s why she gets impatient when he’s talking to Steve and not her.

While she was visiting today, Debbie said something that really intrigued, and ultimately saddened, me.

It was a beautiful autumn day in New England and Ryan and Steve were commenting on the weather. After a brief discussion on the foliage and sunshine, Ryan said, “It’s a nice day. Everyone’s happy.”

Debbie was already halfway out the door, but she yelled back to us, “Nobody’s happy in my head!”

I thought I had misheard her, but I asked Ryan after she had gone downstairs and he agreed that she had indeed said, “Nobody’s happy in my head.”

At first this comment really struck me as funny, mostly because I could relate. God knows, I have days where no one is happy in my head too.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder exactly what Debbie meant.

Did she simply mean that she was sad or unhappy today?

Or does she have people inside her head? I don’t mean real people, but voices. Can people with developmental disabilities be schizophrenic too?

Perhaps Debbie was just trying to be funny. She seems to like to make people laugh so maybe it was a joke.

I hope she was joking. I don’t like to think that Debbie is depressed or hearing voices.

Way back in high school I read the Daniel Keyes book Flowers for Algernon. I can’t say it is one of my favorite books because it’s so heartbreaking, but I think it has stayed with me more than any other book I’ve ever read.

In case you’re not familiar, Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie, a man with mental disabilities and a very low IQ, who receives experimental treatment that makes him gradually smarter.

But as his intelligence grows, so does is awareness of his life. He realizes that the people he thought were his friends are actually laughing at him. And he realizes that intelligence doesn’t bring happiness.

Algernon is a lab mouse who had the intelligence increasing surgery before Charlie did. Charlie takes care of Algernon and witnesses the mouse’s deterioration and death, a fate he shares at the end of the book.

Of course, I’m simplifying the plot greatly, but when I first read it I was thoroughly struck by the idea that someone could be happier with an IQ of 70 than with one of 190. It had never occurred to me.

I have always placed great importance on intelligence, probably to the point of snobbery. I would choose to be smart over beautiful any day.

But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be… and I don’t know how to say this without sounding completely condescending, so forgive me… lacking the intellectual curiosity that makes you question everything. To be completely satisfied with your life the way it is; to not constantly be striving to be something better, someone smarter or more successful.

I sound arrogant and superior, don’t I. That’s not my intention.

Reading Flowers for Algernon caused me to realize for the first time that maybe being intelligent isn’t one of the keys to happiness. Sure, it makes life easier just like being pretty and rich makes life easier (so I’m told), but maybe it also lends itself to discontentment.

Charlie was happier when he didn’t realize that people were laughing at him or know that he wasn’t smart.

I thought of the book when Debbie said that nobody was happy in her head today. It’s not that I thought her mental disability meant she was always cheerful. But I hoped that, like Charlie, she didn’t comprehend how tough her life really is.

But if no one is happy in her head, then I guess she does.

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