Friday, January 1, 2010

2010 -- New Year, New Way to Think

Full disclosure: this post is not about my knee, but about something bigger: our ability to think for ourselves.

As you welcome in the New Year with a fresh batch of recycled resolutions, I’d like to share the profound words of David Foster Wallace. Back in 2005, he spoke to the graduating class of Kenyon College. His speech was titled, “This is Water,” and it conveys Wallace’s struggles to define thinking and master empathy. His theme is captured in this little gem: “Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of it.”

Wallace’s speech, I hope, causes you to re-consider how you view the world, or at least the small part of the world you inhabit. I hope it causes you to think before you speak; to seek information and form your own opinion, rather than follow the herd. Just like the mid-range jump shot, these attributes are a lost art.

In today’s partisan climate, people increasingly surround themselves with like-minded folks, especially the ones who are supposed to be “leaders.” Republicans only watch Fox; Democrats only watch MSNBC. Right-wingers listen to Rush Limbaugh; liberals follow Huffington Post. Issues are no longer debated. They’re not even spotted.

These days, you have to subscribe to multiple news sources just to get a (somewhat) complete picture. The media only reports stories with angles that reflect the viewpoints closest to their readers or reporters, failing to examine stories from all sides. It’s all about the angles. The source of your news says as much about you as your actual views. In fact, think about what your opinions would look like if you only listened to Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann? While I realize they aren’t traditional newscasters, in today’s world most news is delivered this way. If your reaction to the mention of either of these guys is something like, “Man, that dude is so biased. Only a (liberal or conservative) would believe his cr*p.” Well, imagine how somebody with the polar opposite viewpoint reacted to that statement. Yup. They feel the exact same way about what you watch and read.

Here’s a challenge. Try watching one of those programs exclusively for 2 days, then switching to the other one. Just grit your teeth. Maybe half of the stories will be the same – the current health care vote, a bombing in the Middle East, etc. – except they’ll be covered from diametrically opposite angles. The other half of the program will address stories the other show doesn’t even mention. And yet people who watch just one of those shows are expected to get a complete picture of the issues? They’re supposed to debate things intelligently, let alone civilly? Um, yeah. Didn’t think so.

This dichotomy has trickled down to the local level, as our communities have become echo chambers, little cocoons of isolated thoughts and viewpoints. Neighborhood “for sale” signs should also include notices like, “Democrats only” or “Liberals need not apply.” Society has reached the point where “diversity” needs to be expanded beyond skin color or religion. Things don’t appear to be changing anytime soon. Remember last November when we were supposed to have moved beyond red states and blue states? Well, it looks like Obama’s ascendancy was a mirage, a temporary flash of hope. I can’t say I’m surprised, though I admit I had hoped things would change. But the venom spewed over the past decade wasn’t really about Bush, despite what was written for the past 8 years. George W. just happened to be an easy target, a caricature of ineptitude. The problem was how the rest of us debated stuff.

Fox holes used to be the last line of defense for the brave. Now? They’re refuges where folks willingly hunker down with sycophants. Who loses when people put on blinders and cannot have their views challenged? Everybody.

Which brings me to Wallace’s graduation speech. It’s not too late for society to become a bit more open-minded, a bit less hostile, and I think his words will help. For 2010, don’t just promise to lose weight or spend more time with your family, admirable goals. For the next 12 months, vow to step outside the box. To listen, before deciding. To contemplate, before reacting. To gather information, before offering a knee-jerk opinion. To try to see things from another perspective. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Happy New Year (and now I’ll step off my moral and philosophical soap box and return to knee updates.)

(Below are excerpts from Wallace’s speech; the full text can be found here. I highly recommend reading it)


Thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am -- it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line -- maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible -- it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important -- if you want to operate on your default-setting -- then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...


And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.


And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.