One key area we tend to gloss over as we seek to craft more nourishing and generative ways of operating in the world is how we think. This may seem like a theoretical issue, but it isn’t. Our habitual, cultural conditioned ways of thinking vitally affect our outlook and choices in life.
What are these habitual ways of thinking? Put simply, we live in a world where opinions and judgments are all important. Lacking them or, even worse, expressing tentativeness or confusion, we are likely to be judged as indecisive and wishy-washy.
Opinions and judgments are, of course, important. But what is troubling is the central role they play in our conversations and ways of thinking. Far too often, they are substitutes for, rather than conclusions drawn from, a careful marshaling of evidence and sustained reflection.
Where does this opinion-based thinking show up? Everywhere. In politics, for example, most of us are wedded to a belief in our “extraordinary” experiment in “democracy” and “free-market capitalism.” But what is obvious, when you stop and think about it, is that these are simply statements of faith. Over the years, there have been dramatic shifts in our system of governance and ways of managing the economy. But our belief in the unique virtues of our system – however it happens to look at the moment – remains.
The result? Even as evidence of the system’s inefficiencies, indecencies, and inequities accumulates, we maintain our belief in it. Whether conservative or liberal, we persist in believing that our problems can be solved by working the system rather than changing it; by electing new and better leaders.
Maybe this confidence is well placed and maybe it isn’t. But what is clear – my essential point – is that we are treating an opinion as fact. And what atrophies in the process are our critical faculties: Our ability to absorb new information; to integrate it into our pre-existing notions of how things are; and to allow new, more discerning understandings to emerge.
In our personal lives, a similar dynamic is at work. When people fail to meet our expectations, we don’t instinctually become curious – sifting the evidence, attempting to understand how they are different and why they act the way they do. Instead, we judge and dismiss. They are insensitive – or selfish – or lazy – or (the ultimate judgment) an asshole. And this pattern applies even when the other person is our spouse or child.
Why are these habits of thinking so pervasive? Because they so effectively promote and reinforce the culture’s predominant values: Compete and win, dominate and control.
Thinking in this way, the goal – in perfect alignment with these values – is not to engage with and persuade others but to overpower their will. How does this work? A firm opinion becomes our chosen instrument of aggression. Then, reflexively judging people who don’t share that opinion, we push for dominance and control; saying, implicitly or explicitly, either agree with me or be pushed aside.
Notice too that the opposite approach – openness to differing points of view and a careful weighing of evidence – cultivates curiosity, reflection, dialogue, respect, and appreciation; all deeply relational qualities. And being relational, it is utterly inconsistent the mainstream culture’s (non-relational) “certainty/ judgment/dominate and control” mindset.
So, intent on getting ahead in the world as it is, we instinctually de-emphasize this approach, understanding that – whatever its substantive merits – the far more pressing concern is to avoid being labeled as weak, wishy-washy and indecisiveness.
The good news in all of this is that the habits of thought we are seeking to undo are not the result of “stupidity;” of an innate inability to engage in reasoned thought and analysis. Indeed, jumping to this all too easy conclusion is itself just another manifestation of the judgmental and dismissive mindset we are seeking to overcome.
But the fact that we are not dealing with an unalterable biological defect does not mean the pattern is easily changed. To the contrary, we are dealing with mindsets that are deeply embedded in our habitual, mainstream ways of operating.
So how do we begin to undo them? A good starting place is to identify the common conceptual pitfalls that allow these habitual ways of thinking to infiltrate and colonize our psyches.
Here are some key examples.
Assuming the best about “us”
One particularly corrosive example is our tendency to assume the best about members of our group. Thus, I vividly recall an episode of the Daily Show, a few years ago, in which Jon Stewart presented side-by-side videos of Barack Obama and George W. Bush saying the exact same things on a series of foreign policy issues. The show’s “reporter” reacted with mock exasperation, saying that Obama is “different.” Why? “Because he doesn’t mean it.”
Stewart’s point is, of course, a serious one. Our tendency to assume the best about people like us is chronic – and seldom acknowledged. So, as discussed above, most of us refuse to connect the negative dots about America’s system of government, seeing repeated examples of cruelty and injustice as unfortunate exceptions in an overall landscape of fairness, decency, and justice.
Assuming the worst about “them”
The converse is also true. We instinctually judge others by their worst examples, a tendency made more virulent by the media’s eagerness to amplify the shrillest voices; those that promote the most strident and debased versions of the communities they represent.
This point was driven home for me in the 1990s when I became deeply immersed, as an attorney, in the evangelical world. Prior to that experience I judged that community by its worst examples – the Jimmy Swaggarts and Tammy Faye Bakers. Being exposed to many thoughtful and dedicated evangelicals leaders, however, laid bare my reflexively dismissive attitude and guided me toward a more nuanced and respectful view.
That experience was a stark reminder of how easily I slip into a judgmental frame of mind. Unless I am vigilant, my habitual, gut response – when presented with people, groups and ideas that are different – is to judge them as “less than,” suspect in their motives, and “wrong.” “Not knowing” and curiosity are not my instinctual vocabulary. Compounding the problem is the striking absence of any meaningful social norms, cues, and sanctions to steer me away from this judgmental and dismissive mainstream mindset.
Looking for a single cause
Another equally pervasive pitfall is to look for a singular, value-laden cause. Working with couples is a continual reminder of how widespread this pattern is. A typical couple will come to counseling with her saying (for example) that “the” problem is that he doesn’t share his feelings and he, in turn, identifying her critical ways as “the” problem.
The reality? There is no single cause and, typically, no fault. Instead, there are a series of a mutually reinforcing acts, all taken in good faith, that lead to unfortunate results. He feels anxious and protects himself by going silent. Sensing that, she responds with her own protective behavior – a complaint – which triggers a renewed, more escalated response from him; and so on. Just two good people doing the best they can.
What is true in our intimate relationships is also true in every other area of living. That malevolent boss or co-worker is almost never the singular cause of our woes at work. And Wall Street – or Big Government – or Trump – or Clinton (chose your villain) is not “the cause” of our political woes. However, our tendency, over and over again, is to oversimplify and demonize; to feed the certainty/ judgment machine.
Excessive faith in our own instincts and beliefs
The final conceptual pitfall I want to highlight is what Francis Bacon calls the “idiosyncrasies of individual belief and passion” and identifies as one of the key “distorting prisms of human nature.”
We live in a world that celebrates individualism and, as a corollary, promotes a debased version of relativism: That everything that everyone thinks is fine. The result is that when we “feel” something or have a “spiritual experience” we all too easily assign a sweeping meaning to it.
My problem is not with experience but the with uncritical nature of this meaning making process. Wouldn’t we be better served if we were more cautious about labeling things as messages from God or the universe? Wouldn’t we also be better served if we felt culturally empowered to critically question our friends and acquaintances when they offer these sorts of explanations?
Needless to say, there are many other ways in which the mainstream culture’s habitual ways of thinking insinuate themselves into our lives. Hopefully, a deeper understanding of these processes – and the intent behind them – will allow us to cultivate more curious, accepting, and reflective habits of mind.
These are, it seems to me, essential building blocks if we hope to create more nourishing lives and a more decent world.