I have been thinking a lot about common sense in recent years, including while writing my novel, reading the memoir Townie, by Andres Dubus III (more on that in a bit), and using weights at a gym.
Earlier in life my approach to weight machines was to experiment with different weight settings until I could push or pull as designed, work my muscles until they fatigued, and then move on to another machine. I didn’t know anything more than this. Given my inexperience and ignorance, I would end up hurt–not just sore. I never kept my gym memberships for long. Over a year ago, I joined a gym and signed up to work with a personal trainer who I will call Lee. Now I have a lot more sense about weight machines, which I use when I experiment with a new one.
Though people and dictionaries seem to attribute common senses to an innate quality a person either has or doesn’t have, I don’t believe that is all there is to it. I strongly believe a major component of having common sense has to do with getting the opportunity to develop relevant understanding. A person who spends a lot of time in a gym will absorb some of the rhythms (such as repetitions and sets), postures, and preparations (such as adjusting machines) of those around, even without formal training. But it’s more likely to appear as second nature when a person has similar experience or knowledge.
For instance, even when entering a gym for the first time, people who work with machinery are more likely to understand they need to adjust a weight machine for their height, or the length of their arms or legs, and to figure out how to do it. People who practice yoga are more likely to breathe out while exerting force, and in when returning the weight to position. Those who have studied ballet or various other physical disciplines are more likely to steady and engage the muscles surrounding the muscles they are working, which helps prevent injury. People who have learned good posture are more likely to maintain good form while lifting weights, which also helps prevent injury.
Lee would tell me, “Stand tall, like you’re balancing books on your head. You know, like your mother taught you. Didn’t she teach you this?” (No.) Lee’s mother probably raised him to have common sense, to understand the basic things children are supposed to learn from their parents.
I didn’t get that. I got a lot from my parents (some helpful, some not), but it was quite different from what my friends were learning at home. I learned that death is a great subject for conversation. I learned that the police might come when our neighbors complained that our family was being too loud. I learned that if I did what my mother wanted, people from another planet might save me also when the big earthquake came and they descended in a flying saucer to rescue our mother. I admit, after wearing myself out lifting weights, I felt like exploding when Lee would say, “Stand up straight, like your mother taught you.”
I believe having common sense is partly about sharing a foundation of knowledge and norms with most others in one’s larger community. People might have street smarts but not common sense, because their experience has provided them knowledge outside the mainstream norm–useful for life on the streets, but less useful in the larger community.
This is a theme in the memoir Townie by Andre Dubus III (2011, W.W. Norton & Company). His father moved out during his childhood, and did not comprehend the impoverished life of his children in depressed mill towns north of Boston. Their mother worked outside the home, and was tired and distracted after work, so Dubus and his siblings were largely on their own.
Dubus spent a lot of time in gyms trying to build his strength to protect himself and his siblings against neighborhood bullies.
He over-trained. He writes, “Now, instead of one or two exercises for each body part, I was doing five, four or five sets each, and I moved my workouts from three times a week to six, and they were no longer one hour each but two and a half to three hours…For weeks I ignored how tired I was getting, how I was always sore and avoided looking in the mirror because there was never much to see, even less than a few months earlier.” Dubus learned the hard way that muscles need time to repair and rebuild, so resting them between workouts is essential for progress.
For years, he initiated fist fights, until he found better ways to live his life.
In one passage, he describes being with his father and his father’s new girlfriend. She told him she was from Manhattan, which he had not heard of, though he lived in the northeast, and had some college. He realized by the awkward silence that followed that his ignorance had embarrassed his father, a famous writer and professor. He writes, “I was tired of being a townie.”
I loved the book, partly because this theme is very personal to me: of growing up marginalized, and being out of the mainstream loop of information. Then struggling to figure out what others take for granted as common knowledge, and common sense. This is a major theme in my novel, Fracture.
I believe common sense generally builds over people’s life time, which means it is something more than an innate quality. Thank you, Lee, for teaching me to stand tall, and giving me more sense of what to do in a gym. And congratulations to Dubus for developing wisdom, establishing a functional family of your own, and learning to live a peaceful and successful life.