Be still, and know

I’m working on an aphorism. The current version: write what you know, not what you wish you knew. Many of us have suffered at the pens of people with bright ideas who don’t actually know what they’re talking about. I have a short list of writers who wrote about their bright ideas only after having lived them out, and I treasure them, not only for the time-tested wisdom they offer but for their honest accounts of how wrong their thinking was when they started out. Some ideas are so good you really want them to be true, and consequently won’t hear anything said against them.

If I had to recommend a strategy to counter this, I’d suggest practicing not taking a position on things. The things could be in any realm of life—political, social, spiritual, familial, educational, health-related, The diagnostic question: does it matter to anyone/anything if I have an opinion about this? If the answer is no, then try to hold off making up your mind until the evidence is overwhelming, and even then hold it lightly.

“To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” is a cliché, but it speaks an important truth. Once we’ve settled on our opinion, we will champion evidence that supports it and disregard anything that doesn’t. Discernment goes out the window once we have a stake in the accuracy of the opinion, even one so small as the embarrassment of admitting we were wrong.

I don’t have many settled opinions, and most of those I refrain from sharing publicly just because there’s no helpful (to me or anyone else) reason to do so. And the absence of positions publicly taken leaves me quite well positioned to cultivate open-mindedness, which in turn enables me to explore and sometimes embrace some pretty unpopular ideas. The social pressure of adhering to things I once believed would be irresistible if I had championed them publicly. Instead I can change my mind fairly easily when the evidence seems to merit it, and even the new thinking is held lightly enough to let me continue hearing other uncomfortable things.

One good example of my no-opinionism comes from the parable of the prodigal son, specifically the role of the elder brother in the story. I remember long ago being puzzled why he was even mentioned, and have spent maybe twenty-five years thinking about what (if anything) Jesus was trying to tell us in that coda. I’ve read many interpretations and come up with a few of my own, none of them satisfying to me, most of them intriguing in their implications. I still have no overall idea what his role is. But isn’t that the best sort of parable—one that can keep you actively engaged for more than twenty-five years?

Other pilgrims may have other reasons for quieting their minds, but for me (right now, anyway) it’s primarily a way of shutting off the usual filters. I was thinking on my walk this morning about my earliest memories (which are few, my memory for life events is pretty bad) and realized that they aren’t really memories, but memories of memories. I know, for example, that I was walking home to eat lunch (!) from first grade one day, saw some broken milky glass in the gutter, picked it up not knowing what it was (or at least what it could do to me), and sliced up my hand pretty badly. But what I remember are the processed facts, the things that happened—I don’t have much if any direct memory of the experience itself, and what little I do is probably imaginary.

Similarly, as I walk I will notice something, and the thing quickly spurs a long chain of thought—nearly all of which happens in my head, not in my surroundings, not leaving much opportunity for new information to penetrate. There’s nothing per se wrong with that, I do have a bunch of ideas pending that need to be worked out, and walking is a good time to do that. But I also want to cultivate sensitivity to my surroundings, to learn how to absorb what my senses are telling me rather than quickly abstracting a small portion and using it as mind fodder. That’s the sort of buzz I need to be able to shut down at will.


4 thoughts on “Be still, and know

  1. Sure. Right now it’s in my head, and it will take a little memory work to make sure it’s complete, but it’s probably worth writing down.

    One that comes to mind right away is Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life by Jean Hay Bright. It’s a fascinating story in its own right, about a couple who were thinking about homesteading and stumbled across Scott and Helen Nearing, who inexplicably offered to sell the couple a chunk of their Maine property (the other person they did that for was Eliot Coleman). The Nearings loom large in homesteading mythology (as does Coleman to a lesser extent), and the book is a warts-and-all look at their lives written by a close neighbor. Maybe more important, though, it is a detailed and honest account of the mixed results and ultimate failure of their own homesteading efforts. It is especially good at portraying how difficult the life is.

  2. I can definitely see your point here. It just seems more honest and helpful to write about what you’ve lived with for a long time. And you can certainly be more concrete and down-to-earth that way (almost by definition). I’ve noticed that people in more traditional countries spend a lot less time defending what they believe and more time just doing it.

    I have two quick comments: One is that, although I put less and less stock in the Myers-Briggs every day, you seem to be describing the N/S spectrum of traits, N being more theoretical/in the head and S more present/concrete. For what it’s worth, I come out very N on these tests, which probably means I’m not a good example of what you’re going for!

    Another is, how to you go about withholding opinions indefinitely, but also without becoming, as Chesterton once put it, a man “too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table”? This said, I have met plenty of people who hold to their aforementioned mental modesty with all the force of a blowhard!

    Laura A (signing because I’m experimenting with my WordPress account)

  3. Laura,

    And you can certainly be more concrete and down-to-earth that way (almost by definition).

    At some point in the past fifteen years I made an informal promise to myself to not assert something in writing without offering concrete illustrations, preferably one’s I’d directly experienced. I think my writing improved markedly, in at least two ways: the things I wrote were more likely to be helpful to others; and lots of things didn’t get written, because the thoughts behind them evaporated as I tried to make them concrete.

    … you seem to be describing the N/S spectrum of traits, N being more theoretical/in the head and S more present/concrete …

    Whether or not they actually give accurate results, main objection to analytical tools like Myers-Briggs is that they are often used to get people comfortable with their current assortment of strengths and weaknesses: “Well, that’s just the way God made me.”

    Perhaps, but I prefer to think of our weaknesses as the particular set of challenges God set for us to meet. When raising our kids, we always allowed their giftedness to take its own course while working with them to address their weaknesses. It didn’t prevent them from excelling, and I think it has given them a nicely balanced foundation to work from, as well as a healthier perspective on the strengths and weakness they encounter in others.

    How do you go about withholding opinions indefinitely, but also without becoming, as Chesterton once put it, a man “too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table”?

    A point worthy of a blog post. Well, all three are worthy, but this is the one I’ll probably get to soonest.

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