To Grok The Future

I read Stranger in a Strange Land when I was in high school, and remember first reading the word “grok”, a term coined by the author, Robert Heinlein.

It struck a resonance in me even then as a mysterious communion between a person in a special kind of receptivity with the object, concept or place that he or she attempted to incorporate into their reality.

It was more than a simple understanding. It was more than common empathy. It was a marriage between subject and object, a kind of assimilation of fact into self, not so much knowing the thing as in a sense be-ing  it.

It was  to take a discrete reality that was not self into self. I got that. Then I forgot it–at least on some levels–for decades.

Now, I’d like the term back out of mothballs for my own thinking. I need to grok our human predicament, the blessing and riches we have in each other and the living earth, and the gravity and urgency of the hard decisions we are capable of making. Our culture needs to reject this pernicious private-priviledge notion that we are somehow separate, autonomous, free-agent cowboys in this strange land.

Not much different, in Avatar, is the genuine and complete resonance between two souls: “I see you.”

We desperately need to see each other, to grok our common humanity, now, while there is time to save the future.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines grok:

To grok is to intimately and completely share the same reality or line of thinking with another physical or conceptual entity. Author Robert A. Heinlein coined the term in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. In Heinlein’s view, grokking is the intermingling of intelligence that necessarily affects both the observer and the observed. From the novel:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed–to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science–and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

In an ideological context, a grokked concept becomes part of the person who contributes to its evolution by improving the doctrine, perpetuating the myth, espousing the belief, adding detail to the social plan, refining the idea or proving the theory.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Wow – freaky timing! I just started reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time yesterday. I’ve been working my way down a list of 100 books everyone should read – that was the next one on the list that I hadn’t read yet.

  2. I read Stranger in High School, and I’ve read it at least twice as an adult. I’m a sci-fi nerd, I’m supposed to love that book, but I don’t. I know it is a product of it’s time, but I like lots of stuff that came out of the 60s. That book is not one of them though.

  3. COD, nor mine, particularly, except it was one of the first main-stream sci-fi things I ever read. And some bits of it obviously insinuated themselves into my permanent memory and constructs of the world as it is and as it might be. Dog-geek, a book report is in order when-if you get through it.

  4. When/if. So far I have surprised myself – I’ve really enjoyed a lot of books that I thought would bore or irritate me (Dickens, all the Bronte sisters) and yet so far the only book I simply could not get through was one I expected to enjoy: On The Road/Kerouac. I just couldn’t grok it.

  5. I must have stumbled across Heinlein in jr high. I became a big fan of his story telling. Stranger stayed at the top of my favorites list for a long time after I first read it until it was supplanted by Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love. The last time I worked my way through Stranger was probably a decade or so ago…I’ll have to see if I still have a copy bouncing around and revisit it.

    Heinlein’s character’s made a big impression on me growing up. I would have to say a big part of me being who I am came from the characters that grew from his mind.

  6. Gary, that brings to mind something I’ve been thinking about lately: those people in our lives–relatives, teachers, mentors, authors etc–who provided a spark, a nudge, a catalyst that moved our ships just an inch or two maybe at a crucial time. An inch then makes miles worth of difference across a hundred miles of ocean.

    I look back and count my blessings for the good influences–AND wish I’d had that one-inch nudge at some crucial points where there was no wind in my sails. We can be that gentle redirection for someone in our lives. Who is it?

  7. I really liked thinking about your one inch nudge image. So true!! The folks whose tiny nudge left such a big impact on my life would be amazed.
    I too remember the grok concept from Stranger, and thought it a very worthy concept, even if it was placed in a writing style that irritated me pretty much.

  8. I finished David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous (thanks, Colleen!) and ordered a copy of his latest book, <Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. The reviews say that Becoming Animal is an in-depth exploration of his earlier thesis, written in more accessible prose. I look forward to reading it. The Spell of the Sensuous, with its forays into phenomenology, was pretty dense in some parts. The penultimate chapter, The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air addresses, in part, the quote by Wendell Berry that you feature in your “Quotes Worth Keeping” section.