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On not thinking

To the observer of the public scene nothing is more inherently disturbing than the vandalism that takes place in our parks, our schools, and even (as I recently saw noted) upon our farms. The very word ''vandalism'' is ominous, as if the kind of enemy that was once on the frontiers of the Roman Empire is now to be found in our midst. I was at one time in charge of the parks of a great city and I can testify to the distress felt by a public servant when he finds energies and resources that should be applied to building up a domain of pleasure diverted instead to combating quite inexplicable acts of destruction.

In my puzzlement I called in a distinguished sociologist and put my problem before him. You must realize, he said in effect, that different people use parks for different purposes; they get pleasure in their own ways. Some like to stroll down the paths or sit upon the grass; others like to tear up the benches. Their satisfaction resides in throwing litter baskets into the ponds. The assumption of this learned man was that each form of pleasure had its own validity and that it was my business as an administrator to cater to the needs of all groups. I thanked him for his advice and let him go upon his way.

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Recently I put a similar question to the headmaster of a school where students move in the midst of a beautiful environment with every facility provided for the pleasure of mind and body, and yet where small acts of destructiveness repeatedly occur. How could it be that certain young people, essentially appreciative, sensible, and disciplined, should allow themselves these aberrations? My friend pondered a moment, and then replied that in talking with students who had been found responsible for such vandalism he seemed to get only one reply: ''I wasn't thinking.'' Following up on my researches I have received from others a similar response.

''I wasn't thinking. . . .'' Now that, when you consider it, is an odd sort of excuse for antisocial acts. If a person caught in an awkward situation should say he was angry, or disconsolate - that his girlfriend had let him down or that he had muffed a pass in the football game - I would not be surprised and might even forgive him. But what is this thinking-machine which presumably works most of the time but every once in a while gets turned off?

I do not ordinarily get the impression that young people go about with heads bowed, ''lost in thought.'' They are the better as they move with a certain leisurely abandon, taking life as it comes, acting upon more or less benign impulses. If their impulses sometimes betray them into doing foolish or even wicked things, that is regrettable. But it is not so curious as this idea some seem to want to convey - that they are natural thinkers, and that they only behave irresponsibly when thinking momentarily ceases.

The more honest answer of people caught in foolish acts would be, it seems to me, that their emotions carried them away. ''I was not myself'' is a better explanation than that lame, apologetic ''I wasn't thinking.'' None of us think all the time, and many of our thoughts are mighty foolish. But our instincts are often surprisingly generous; they make us into very plausible images of what we would most like to be.

In the end it is beliefs that form our characters and shape our conduct. ''A man is born believing,'' Emerson says somewhere; ''he bears beliefs as an apple tree bears apples.'' No man, however, is born thinking. As a youth he may learn to think; he may think well or ill. When he becomes a vandal, an enemy of himself no less than of the world that surrounds him, it is not because he has forgotten to think - or because he is young - but because he has allowed his beliefs to wither for an hour or a season.