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.