What being a meme means to me: How a 30-year old sentence found a life of its own

Posted 1/24/20

A Chinese collection of "Wit and Wisdom" contains a sentence that's lived a life of its own since I wrote it 30 years ago. By Hugh Gilmore  “The human mind is as driven to understand as the body …

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What being a meme means to me: How a 30-year old sentence found a life of its own

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A Chinese collection of "Wit and Wisdom" contains a sentence that's lived a life of its own since I wrote it 30 years ago.

By Hugh Gilmore 

“The human mind is as driven to understand as the body is driven to survive.”  

The preceding line is taken from a long, prize-winning magazine article I wrote 30 years ago. It appeared under the sub-heading: “RECREATING THE ACCIDENT.” The accident was the automobile death of my first-born son, Colin, at 18, due to a drunk driver’s negligence. From the moment I was first given that devastating news, I needed to understand what happened that night on Hawaii’s Highway H-1, right where it turns into Farrington Highway. And what happened after Colin was medevacked to Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu and soon after declared brain dead.  

When I was able to get to Hawaii from Philadelphia, I questioned doctors, police, and the lawyer I’d hired trying to find out what had happened. I even drove the highway at the same time of night the accident happened. I saw the curve, the lighting; I stopped near the medial strip to pick up fragments of taillights; removed his Patti Smith and Beastie Boys audiotapes from the crushed automobile in the impoundment yard; talked more to the lawyer after he deposed the other driver; discussed what funeral arrangements to make with his mother and her second husband; held Colin’s ashes in a small box; released him ceremonially to the Pacific Ocean, and then came home. Then I read legal reports and medical reports and even, finally, the autopsy report, a process that nearly made me faint when I read about the weight of his heart, his dear heart, an exercise that left me mentally drained for months. 

I was driven, scientifically, spiritually and psychologically to understand what it meant that Colin was no longer with us. Had I failed him in such a way as to put him on that highway that night when the beast was out and about? Had the police on the scene done all they could have to assure he got to the hospital quickly? Had the emergency medical team done all they could? I read and talked and sought, feeling it was my duty as his father to know what happened, and if an injustice found, to correct it. But how? Where? Against whom? How powerless it all felt. 

Much of my original article about this life-changing event, published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine (November 19, 1989), is devoted to the process of trying to heal afterward. Through determination, of necessity and by luck, I found ways to go on living. And filling my life with purpose and eventually joy.  

I was an amateur writer when I wrote that article for the Inquirer Magazine. It was titled “Life After Death: A year after the death of his teenage son, a father describes his journey through grief toward acceptance.” I put my heart and soul into that piece because you don’t ever get a second chance to tell a personal story for the first time. If you tell it a second time you feel like a hack. The appreciative words and messages I received afterward were rewarding. Then the article went back in the drawer, the magazine rushed to get next week’s edition out, and people had begun lining their birdcages with my words and thoughts. Such is the longevity of most journalism. 

Surprisingly, though, an editor from the Inquirer called me in June of 1990 to say that in the annual contest held at the convention of the Sunday Magazine Editors Association my piece had won the “Sunday Best” First Place award for Best Essay. That pleased me. I felt I had done my duty toward my awful story. And first time out, “Best Essay” – liked more than anything in the Times, or Post, or Inquirer. A national award. Very encouraging. 

Things rapidly normalized after that. In fact, I learned how weird the after-life of a piece of writing can be. A friend with contacts at Readers Digest offered to send my essay to them for reprinting. They accepted it...sort of. What they accepted was one sentence: “The human mind is as driven to understand as the body is driven to survive.” They paid something like $250.00 for that one sentence. Good money, but they just wanted that one. 

Somehow, however, over the succeeding years, my wonderful, high-priced sentence got sucked into the vast vacuum of the metamorphosing vortex known as the internet and got spit out as a meme. Try it: type into Google “The human mind is as driven, etc.” (With the quote marks) I accidentally discovered five pages citing that “quote” one day. Impressive in a way. Except for one thing: The way it is most often used has nothing to do with a grief-stricken father picking up pieces of broken tail lights, nor with his reading autopsy reports, or talking to a Hawaiian detective in the eerie green light of an underground garage, or removing his son’s last-listened-to tapes from his crashed car. It has become instead an inspirational meme used most often by leadership trainers and motivational speakers. I think it now means something like: Never give up! Keep trying, even if the fat lady has sung.  

Humility is easily achieved in this world, even if you don’t want it and don’t wear it well. 

Hugh Gilmore lives, writes and scratches his head in Chestnut Hill. Much of the preceding story is contained in Part 3 of his memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story,” found easily on Amazon.com

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