A friend recently shared her summary of the writings of some old white dude with some old white-dude name. He posits, in a totally old-white-dude way, that animals cannot have thoughts because they do not have words to think them. I posit, respectfully, that he is an idiot.
As evidence to support my claim, I point to Legos.
Specifically, I point to the stack of Lego bins in my closet, which, yes, I still build with because Legos are timeless, ageless classics that I have to justify moving to every new house and apartment I’ve lived in since college. If I don’t play with them, then they can’t bring me joy, and Mari Kondo will try convincing me to give them away to some child less fortunate, who would probably just lose the Lego pirates down the heater vent anyway.[Side note: was anyone else an adult before they figured out “leggo my Eggo” had nothing to do with the greatest toy ever invented?]
Here’s the scene: you’re building, because why not, a Lego Millennium Falcon staffed by medieval knights on horseback. You need a certain piece. You know how many bumps it has on it, and how thick it is. You shuffle through your bin of Legos, calling out to this piece with your mind. Let’s name this concept a “thought.” Then your best friend, who does not judge you for building Legos on a Wednesday afternoon, asks you what piece you’re looking for.
You freeze. You have no name for this piece. Leastwise, no name you can reproduce with your mouth. It just has a… a feeling. You balk at describing the piece, because there are so many complex facets to consider, all of which are encapsulated in that feeling but people would think you are crazy if you told them that a tall, straight, light gray, three-bumped piece with holes in it has a “feeling.” So you try to articulate the string of adjectives to your friend, who still comes back with the wrong shade of gray. Which is why it’s easier to play with Legos by yourself and not have any friends.
There is no word for that feeling. No word for that piece. Like, okay, maybe there’s a word for it at Lego World HQ deep in a hidden volcano where Danes get paid to design Lego sets — it has to, so Malthe’s boss Freja can ask whether or not that Trebümpenblokdesijn will be ready before their three-month national summer holiday. But in normal-people land, where no one recompenses our bright ideas (like — get this — a Lego steam engine staffed by medieval knights on horseback), it does not have a name.
Therefore, thoughts exist without words. Therefore, Mr. Old White Dude, my dog has thoughts. Sure, most of them revolve around going o-u-t-s-i-d-e, which is why I spend my days diligently avoiding any trace of a hint of possibly moving toward the back door. It’s also why I’ve had to remove from my vocabulary all those phrases that can be mistaken for o-u-t-s-i-d-e, like “owl slide” or “mouse hide.” Soon, these concepts will become Lego pieces in my brain: ideas without functioning words to express them.
This is not a new phenomenon for me; in fact, I spend a good deal of my writing time staring at the texture of the wall, trying to identify the right words — sometimes even in the right order — to articulate a thought. I can have this thought clear as any Lego piece. It can even have a more nuanced emotional arc than many contemporary movies. But it has no words.
And I cannot be alone in this experience. If everyone had immediate words for every thought they had, we would all be terrified to learn what everyone was thinking all the time. I do NOT want to live in a world where the people I buy dog food from are privy to an eloquent, well-articulated, English-language interpretation of my thoughts as to how much dog supplements cost. (Hint: they cost even more than Legos.)
I’d much rather remain quiet, handsome, and mysterious — quite like my dog — so that they look at me and wonder what I’m thinking about deep in my soul. Or, if it’s the old white dude at the pet food store, if I’m thinking anything at all. Well, Old Mr. White Dude, you better believe I am. I am thinking plenty of thoughts — I’m just all out of words to describe them. But I assure you, they are well-staffed by medieval knights on horseback.
Zach Hively writes from Abiquiu, N.M. He can be read and reached through https://zachhively.com and on Twitter @zachhively. He placed first in the personal/humorous column category in the recent Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies competition.