Do you believe everything you think?

This election season is a monsoon of communication that doesn’t really communicate. The communication is done with much skill, so the failure is not in the technique. And there’s no lack of good information, even if you have to dig to find it. But today, communication fails mostly because of the frame of mind and intentions of those who make and receive it.

A key problem is that we tend to believe everything we think. We all do that. I do that. This leads to an imperialism of thought: I treat the way I think it is as how it really is, and when someone else differs, they’re wrong, and their thinking must be repaired.  But my mind (and yours) is not good enough for that.  My logic falls apart at some point. My lack of information betrays me. My intuitions, left to themselves, divert me.  My feelings drive me past the point where I should stop. My imagination whips up fantasies that often severely distort reality, yet still influence how I deal with it.

Since the only point of view I actually experience is my own, the only way I can become less of a thoroughly self-obsessed wiseass is for outside forces to push me to a new place from which I will see the world differently. And indeed, this is what happens to all of us. Each of us thinks in ways that have been shaped, gathered together, and imaged by media, institutions, culture, and the people around us. Other points of view show us what I can’t see from where I am. That’s actually a good thing to a point, because none of us have anywhere near enough experience to understand more than a few matters well. Without such constant reshaping, gathering, and imaging, we don’t learn.

Good to a point.

That point is when we let those others do the thinking for us. Life is so much simpler that way. There’s less responsibility in it. When people tire of thinking, they use the phrase ‘my head hurts’.  It takes work to seek, sift, solve the puzzle, and figure out what to do with what you’ve discovered. Few of us are built to turn everything into a doctoral dissertation.  And, truth be told, we don’t have to. It is enough just to think things through until a clear direction task hold.  That’s enough to prevent us from being someone else’s servant. We have enough of our own biases without taking on another’s and holding it just as tightly.

Now, assume you’ve been doing this right. You listen to others, to yourselves, you feel, you sense, you imagine, you think things through. That leaves one more barrier: pride. It hits in this form: “I’ve already thought this through. I came to my stance rightly. While I know that I don’t know it all, that’s just a technicality at this point.  I really *do* know.” But that is not how knowledge works. No matter how rightly you process knowledge, you are small, and wisdom is BIG. Each little bit of understanding comes as part of a huge context, with large subcontexts within it. What’s needed is ‘epistemic humility‘ – being wise enough, with enough self-perspective, to truly understand that you don’t ultimately know. Epistemic humility doesn’t mean that you don’t aim high, it means you don’t live under the illusion you’ve reached as high as it goes. You are not God. You’re in the same boat as everyone else. This leaves you in no position to hate or judge your neighbor. You can learn. You can trust that what you’ve learned is true, and it matters that you keep learning more. But there’s always something partial or broken or incomplete about it. You can’t get out of that. There are some things that come from understanding this: tolerance, an open heart, and a listening ear. And due to those, increased wisdom.

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