Having a Good Mind: Symptoms, Treatment
Don C. Benjamin, Ph.D.
Department of Religious Studies Rice University Houston. TX 77251
Benjamin delivered this Orientation Week address for new students on Wednesday, August 18, 1982 in Hamman Hall at William Marsh Rice University Houston TX. The Rice Thresher 70 (1982) originally published the text.
Since Monday, when you came on campus, you have made more changes in your
life than in any other three-day period, and during the next two semesters you will make
more changes in your life than in any other nine-month period in the near future. So far,
everybody you've met here has coached you on how to make all these changes. If it wasn't
your mother telling you that you put the dresser in the wrong place and you have your
shirts in the wrong drawer, it was your student adviser telling you how to beat the system
by getting a good class schedule or the campus police telling you where you couldn't park.
Change causes pain. Not only the number of changes, but the pace at which we
have to make changes hurts us. So when a campus full of people rush us saying that we
have to change everything from our phone number to our friends and our attitudes about
what we are going to do with our lives by Monday morning, we freeze. Sociologists call this
paralysis shock. If you aren't in shock already, you will be by the time school starts on
August 23. So I want to tell you about the symptoms of this paralysis called Rice Shock
and then tell you know how to treat it.
Rice Shock all starts with one basic symptom: You're smart! The Admissions Offices
says that 64 percent of you graduated in the top 5 percent of your high school classes;
that 26 percent of you are National Merit Scholars; and that all of you have SAT scores of
Another symptom of Rice Shock is that although you're smart, you've never had to
work for it. It isn't that you didn't study and it isn't that you haven't tried to appear
intelligent in the years you spent in high school; but what happens to most of us is that we
just grow up smart.
I am smart. And I didn't do anything to get that way for the first thirty years of my
life. I happen to be the son of a couple who were in the military and who moved almost
every year. To keep me from getting really dumb grades and thrown out of every school 1
attended --and 1 went to four elementary schools and three high schools -they tutored me
all the time. I had to get smart with all that attention; I didn’t have any choice. Around our
house on Sunday it was church in the morning; math~ from twelve to three and English
from three to six in the afternoon.
When I went to college I made the choice to enter a Roman Catholic seminary. In
those days that was the only choice you made --to go to the seminary -- after that all you
had to do was follow the schedule. The schedule determined everything; if it was five
o'clock in the morning, we were getting up; if it was four o'clock in the afternoon we were
in study hall. Everything was supervised. During study hall, for example, the proctor
would walk up and down the aisles stopping to check on what you were studying and
asking if you needed any help. I had to study; it's no wonder I got smart.
And so, but the time I was thirty, I had two master's degrees; and by the time I was
forty, I had a Ph.D. --not really because I earned it, but because it just paid to be smart.
I hadn't done very much at all to earn the reputation of being a smart person. The credit
for my intelligence goes to the adults, the decision makers in my life. They told me: Do this
and you'll be smart. I did what I was told; no questions asked.
When I came to Rice in 1978, I had to ask myself --for the first time in my life --What
am I going to do with being smart?" I had to earn it for the first time in my life. Rice is the
real world for smart people. For most of us, Rice is the first place in our lives where we
have to work to be smart. When we get to Rice and say to someone: I’m smart!, they
answer: So? Everybody at Rice is smart; even the students are smart. The question is not
who is smart and who isn't. The question is what are we going to do with our intelligence.
The most difficult part of working at being smart for us that we have spent most of
our lives denying we are smart. Oh, we made a few modest concessions· from time to time.
We knew it didn't matter if we said we liked school. If we really felt courageous: we
admitted we enjoyed reading. But we would never, never, never say: I’m smart! But no
matter how hard we worked to cloak being smart, so that people would not discriminate
against us, the evidence was all still there. We'd catch ourselves reading in the bathroom
or signing up for self-enrichment classes. We'd go to night school and learn Spanish --just
for the fun of it!' We'd listen to more than one radio station. We'd get a perfect grade on an
exam. The teacher would ask us to fill in for her when she was going to be absent -- we'd
do it, for God's sake! Somehow, no matter how clever our dodges, we were branded as
But by far, the most cruel way we smart people have of denying it is to pick out some
other smart person to persecute. We have a killer instinct for hurting one another just
because we don't like being smart. We call each other names. We find each other weird.
We consider one another’s interests bizarre. The one thing we learn when people hate us
and when people hurt us is how to do it to one another. When we are persecuted we don't
end up being more tolerant; what we end up doing is being sharper at hurting someone
else, because from our own painful experiences, we know how to get the job done.
Rice Shock is the paralysis that sets in when we realize that once we set foot on this
campus to stay, the whole world knows we are smart and that in one big hurry we have to
stop trying to deny it[ and start working to prove it for the first time in our lives.
Treatment for Rice Shock starts with being able to say: I'm smart! Being smart is
like being an alcoholic. It isn't a problem we solve; it is a condition we live with. We have to
admit that being smart is a very real part of us, and therefore a part of us we need to
accept. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, we a!l need to learn how to stand in front of a group
and say: Hi, I'm Don, I'm smart" and then wait, hoping that the group will accept us by
saying: Hi, Don and not: just yawn and say: Oh, God.
When we get comfortable enough to admit we're smart, then we need to start
enjoying it. Our intelligence gives us a tremendous interest in and a tremendous hunger
for life. Smart people like everything. We like science, math, drama, French literature and
computers; we like geology, PE, Russian and managerial studies. We want to work on the
newspaper, join a service club, sing in the church choir and play intramural sports all at
one time. We like beer and sex and philosophy and somehow, in our minds, that all seems
to go together.
The hardest thing in the world for smart people to do is to choose. Your student
advisors sit across the table from you in the dining room and plead: Pick a course, any
course, just pick one. And you sit there, sweating, thumbing through the course
announcements for the year, and wondering if you’ll be able to get them all in before you
graduate. It took me almost eleven semesters to graduate from college and I had 185
semester credits by the time I finished. I suffered from the inability to choose. Happiness
is making choices, not postponing them.
Another thing that keeps us from enjoying our intelligence is we want to make
choices that will last forever. We come to Rice and we want the first person we meet to be
our life-long friend. You want the major you put down in your sophomore year to last until
you're 65 years old and they're giving you an honored alumnus award at commencement.
If you are going to enjoy Rice, you need to realize that all choices are limited, but
that no choice is' terminal. If you don’t change your major five times before you get out of
Rice, you weren't here long enough. We have to be able to make choices that are going to
last us for a while, but then there will be very different choices for us in another semester
or in another year. You won't recognize the self that came here in freshman year, when
you look over that self again as a sophomore or a senior. To be able to make limited
choices is the key to enjoying anything you do here at Rice.
Part of learning to make limited choices is realizing that every time we say Yes to
one thing, we have to say No to something else. If you say Yes to being an electrical
engineer, you say No to being a whole lot of other things here at Rice. But most of us kid
ourselves. So we go on saying: Sure, sure, yeah, fine. Okay, yeah, great, yeah. Fine, put me down for it. And then we realize that it is going to take an office staff of at least 15 people to fulfill all the commitments we made in our first ten days' on campus.
If we can't say No, then we can't say Yes either. And if we are going to enjoy the
limited choices we need to make as a smart person, we have to realize that a choice is not
simply a choice to do something, but it is a choice to prepare and to reflect on everything
we do as well. We all need to anticipate and celebrate our choices as well as participate in
We have to give ourselves time to prepare so that when the things-we chose to do
are going on, we are able to enjoy doing them. There is nothing sicker than knowing you
could have read for a class and didn't. And so you sit there sweating, hoping nobody ask
you anything; or wondering how you'll find some place to stick in that one fact you do
know before class is over.
And there is no way you are going to enjoy anything you do, if, when you leave the
class or the extracurricular or the time you've spent with a friend, you don't give yourself
a period to relish it -- to be able to think back over what you have just done to be able to
create myths about what an absolute success you were, or what a damn fool you made of
yourself. Part of enjoying what you do is being able to lie about it. If you don't give yourself
time to tell those lies, you'll run from one hour to the next, not knowing whether you're in
physics or drama or chemistry, or if you ate your lunch or just ate your notes.
Making limited choices requires making choices that give you time to prepare and to
participate and to celebrate the choices you made. It took me a long time before I
discovered how much I enjoyed running. I started running the year I was finishing my
Ph.D dissertation. I had reached a point where I wasn't talking to my director about the
dissertation he was directing: and that's lethal. Furthermore, he wasn't talking to me: and
that's an academic death-sentence. I spent hours every day writing, revising, getting
nowhere. I needed something in my life to show some progress, so I started running.
The first day I ran the joggers' trail in Herman Park, which is only two miles. I ran
one mile, walked a half mile, ran a quarter walked -- quarter. The pain was so awful that
I couldn't think of anything else, not even my dissertation or my director. If I hadn't
started running, I would have quit school, all because I never learned how to play.
The year I ran my first marathon I went back to Hermann Park to do the traditional
two mile warm-up on the day before the race. As I ran that two-mile loop without even
sweating, I wondered how it was ever so hard.
I still run. At the end of the day I'm never satisfied: I've never written enough; never
studied enough; never taught well enough. The obsessive-compulsive me wants to stay
there in my study all night to get it right, because, of course, I'm perfect and I'll prove it to
you. But at four o'clock I get up from my desk and run. Sometimes it takes me 6, 8, 10
miles before I am so tired that I forget all the things I wanted to accomplish before I went
to bed. After running 10 miles I am so tired I can't possible argue the point any more.
Besides being able to admit we're smart and being able to enjoy that intelligence, we
need to learn to forget it. I am really sorry that the Brown Foundation gave Rice money for
a Study Skills Course. You already know how to study. You wouldn't be here if you didn't.
We really need money for is a course that will teach us how to play. Knowing how to forget
the intensity of academic life is critical in the treatment of Rice Shock. If the Brown
Foundation had given us a grant to run a course on how to play -- priority given to
incoming students --we would all be healed by Christmas.
Smart people are obsessive-compulsive about learning. We spend all night in
Fondren Library or ICSA and all day drinking or spraying ourselves-with shaving cream to
forget it. We feel so paranoid about having committed so much time to a project we're not
sure was worth it that we choose ways of entertaining ourselves and relaxing that aren't
healthy. The only purpose of sick fun is to scream madly to the world around us: I'm
normal, I'm normal, I'm normal. ....I'm also drunk. We lead a Ping-Pong life going from
intense concentration, which is what an academic career at Rice asks of us, to ridiculous
forms of release that end up killing us as we slide through a hallway full of beer into a tile
If we are going to survive at Rice, we have to learn how to play. It takes more skill to
learn to play than it does to learn to study, especially for smart people. The trick to playing
is not to repeat the obsessive-compulsive behavior we use to study in the way we recreate.
Whatever you do to play while you're here at Rice, it has to be something that helps
you forget the demands of being a scholar, not just repeats them in another context.
Learning to forget it is one of the best ways to treat Rice Shock, but it is also one of the
But when it's all said and done, all the years you spent at Rice, whether it's four or
five or forever, are going to make some sense to you. You need to be able to commit your
intelligence to something significant. You can take my word for it -- you are not going to
starve. No matter how bad the economy gets or no matter how you try to drop out of
society -- Mom will feed you. The question that remains is: Who are you going to lay your
life for? The trap is you'll lay it down for yourself. You'll think you really need two
microwaves and a convector oven and a videotape recorded and another BMW.
And you have the intelligence and the ability to work hard enough to get all this
stuff for yourselves. But if you are going to make sense out of all you put into Rice, and if
you're going to be able to live with the vocation of being an intelligent person, you have to
look at a world that needs smart people and offer to help it.
Smart people put the world in the condition it's in. And so the world needs smart
people to get it out of there. And if we're going to give the world to people who aren't smart,
we'll have to do that after we clean up the mess we've made so far.
This week I was talking with Peter --a man who has a lot of influence in my life. I
don't see Peter very often, but he was the equivalent of my dean and advisor in graduate
school during the 1960's. Peter often calls me from the bus station when he is coming
Peter and Betty had just spent four months in the refugee camps along the border
between Honduras and El Salvador. Those camps are filled with people whose lives are
committed to dying slowly from starvation or quickly from violence.
As we sat there talking until one o'clock in the morning, Peter asked me what I was
doing with my life. Oh, I’m teaching at Rice. Why? Peter asked me, because he knows that
for ten years before coming to Rice I lived and worked in a Los Angeles ghetto. I always feel
guilty when Peter asks me: Why? because somehow I think heft telling me I am doing
something wrong. But my answer to Peter during the years I've been a Rice professor is:
It'll make a difference.
Peter accepts my answer and he talks to me about his experiences in Honduras and
Nicaragua and Guatemala and the agony he goes through as he struggles to stay close to
people whose lives, because of the politics of their country, are murderous. His vigil with
the poor in Latin American is when he comes back to the United States to talk to people
like me about how much difference the way the United States treats countries in other
parts of the world affects their people. From time to time, Peter stops talking and asks me:
Will Rice students really make a difference?
I always tell him: Yes. I have to tell Peter that, because otherwise I would have to tell
him that what I am doing with my life right now doesn't make sense. During those ten
years on the streets of Los Angeles I took care of people who were in jail or who were
hungry or who didn't have work. Those people gave me a tremendous sense of being
significant. I was a person who was physically in touch with the suffering of others. Then
I made the decision to come to Rice to join the establishment. I could never have made
that choice if I didn't think it would make a difference.
And so I will continue to say to Peter and Betty: Yeh, they'll make a difference. There
is bound to be someone in that group who at a time and a place in the future will keep
things-like the war in Lebanon or Honduras from happening; there is bound to be
somebody there who will learn how to end the drought in North Africa or help the
Caribbean community work together. There's bound to be someone who can build a
reactor that eats its own garbage instead of leaving it to be buried in people's back yards.
There's hound to be someone there who can teach us how to heal and how to console and
how to feed the world we have worked on so long.
The greatest treatment for Rice Shock is being able to think those kinds of thoughts
and dream those kinds of dreams and even greatest is the ability to say to yourself: I’m
that person. I am going to learn something in the time that I am here at Rice that will leave
a more human world than the one I lived in. Rice is a tremendous investment in a future;
and you're the future.
Rice Shock is a painful disease -- but Rice Shock is also a sign that growth is taking
place in you. And if 93 percent of last year's freshman class survived because they learned
how to treat that shock by admitting they were smart and by learning to enjoy it and by
finding the ability to play, and by looking at the world into which they were going with a
sense of commitment to it, so can you.
You've got the opportunity; you've got the ability -- you have to ask yourself is: Am I
going to make a difference?" I told my two friends the other night you would. Don't make a
liar out of me!
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