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Thinking is Hard (Or, The Value of Squirming)

I’ve been reading Alan Jacobs’ little book How to Think over the last few days. It doesn’t contain anything particularly new, but it has been yet another reminder of just how bad at thinking we often are and are becoming, particularly in the digital age.

Jacobs does not paint a flattering portrait. Reactionary ideological sloganeering easily and often replaces careful, nuanced thinking about difficult issues. More often than not, the things we think are determined less by actual investigation and weighing of evidence than by our need for social belonging and our desire to have an “other” to define ourselves in opposition to. We are yanked around by emotional reactions and impulses and then tell a rational story to reframe our views as the result of logical analysis. We are masters at lying to ourselves about why we think the things we do, at taking shortcuts when we can’t be bothered to deal with complexity, and at regurgitating platitudes in the confident expectation that this will be affirmed by the people we seek to impress and the groups we hope to belong to. All in all, according to Jacobs, we’re not nearly as good at thinking as we think we are.

A few recent experiences have me thinking about the way I think. First, I was out in Saskatchewan last week speaking to a group of high school students. Not surprisingly, all anyone wanted to talk about was the terrible accident involving the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team that claimed sixteen lives. It was like an open wound in that part of the province, as I wrote about in my previous post. On the last day I was there, many people were talking about a tweet that was making the rounds online that was saying something to the effect of, “Do you think there would have been the same outpouring of grief and solidarity (and money! I believe the GoFundMe page that started to support the victims’ families is now over $13 million) if the victims weren’t white, male, and hockey players?

The tweet was as predictable for our cultural moment (there is nothing that we seem incapable of reducing to a referendum on identity) as was the response (a great deal of unbridled anger). We talked about this a bit in the chapel I was leading. I confess that my initial response to the tweet was also anger. Why would you turn a province’s mourning into an opportunity to play identity politics?! But then I asked myself why I was having that reaction. I brought it up with the students as well. Some of them became visibly angry at the mention of the tweet. But if we all were to press pause on the emotional responses and actually think about it, we must surely acknowledge that there is at the very least a question worth asking there, right?

What if the bus was carrying not young white male hockey players but indigenous kids coming back from a pow-wow or, say, a Christian high school girl’s choir returning from a competition? Could we imagine the same response? Could we imagine $13 million in a GoFundMe account? It seems unlikely to me. This is to take nothing away from the horror of the crash and the devastating ways in which it affects those who lost family and friends. But do we have the intellectual and emotional bandwidth to at some point (perhaps not in the immediate aftermath of tragedy!) ask questions about the role that hockey (and sport, more generally) plays in our cultural imagination and whether this is a good thing? Can we think about even harder questions involving race and gender without losing our collective minds (on either side of the spectrum)?

The second experience involves the ongoing crisis in Syria. Recent news has been dominated by the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Assad government in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. It has reignited public outcry and has led to military strikes by Western powers. This week, I have been having conversations with a Syrian Orthodox priest who has come from the besieged city of Homs to visit the families that our group of churches sponsored a few years ago. It has brought to the surface some political discussions that I mostly try to avoid with my Syrian friends. To put things bluntly, they do not have much use for the narrative of their country that we hear about in Western media. Syrian Orthodox Christians are mostly, although not exclusively, solidly in Assad’s camp. Where we see mostly honest reporting about Syria, they see a propaganda campaign against their president. Where many in the west see a courageous revolution against a brutal dictator, they see terrorists trying to overthrow a political regime that was stable and protective of their people.

This makes for some squirming on my part. The thought that people that I like and respect see someone like Assad as a hero is unsettling. But it also forces me to think a bit harder about why I think the way that I do. It has forced me to acknowledge that I am just as conditioned by the media that I consume as they are by theirs. It has led me to consider how I might feel if I was part of a 10% minority of Christians who had seen what happened in places like Libya when dictators are deposed and governments far less friendly to Christians moved in. It has given me pause to wonder how indebted I might feel to a government whose armed forces literally pulled my family out of the rubble of a war zone. Might I be inclined to see such a government differently? It feels more than a little silly (not to mention dangerously naïve) for someone who has never experienced war and who has only the most fragmentary understanding of the history and politics of the region to be pronouncing upon who the good guys and the bad guys really are. And it probably should.

These experiences have delivered to me a rather obvious and necessary reminder: there’s a lot that I don’t know. I try to read broadly and be reasonably well-informed, but there’s always another perspective to consider, always another experience to take on board, always another way in which my own self limits the views I’m prepared to consider and why. My thinking is profoundly constrained, often in ways I am barely aware of or willing to acknowledge. And so is yours. And so is the thinking of my Syrian friends and my grieving Saskatchewan neighbours and everyone else under the sun.

Thinking is hard.

Which is why I think that it a crucial starting point is self-awareness. We must look at the proverbial log in our own eye before presuming to straighten out the thinking of everyone else. We must be honest about all that we don’t know. We must face squarely all the ways in which our thinking has very little to do with what we think and a lot to do with how we feel—with what we would prefer to be the case and why we prefer it.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    We feel before we think and very often what we think, say and believe is mostly nothing more then confirmation bias of our feelings. While intellectual abstractions are helpful, “logical analysis” as you put it, very often even if we know our observations to be demonstrably illogical we seem, for the most part, unable to choose the logical path. These concepts of reality remain are as theoretically true as they are practically unlived. Beautiful lies, it would seem for the most part.

    Without Christ I would likely view this reality as bleakly as you say Mr. Jacob’s does. Somehow, in Christ, through Christ the perfect balance is struck. The emotional response is informed by right understanding and is, “Love”

    I don’t love to the fullest but I love better then I used to and the more I risk faith, the better I love.

    Tracking in the right direction is the best human outcome possible. The fullness of love comes later.

    May heaven come to all who seek her.

    April 17, 2018
    • I don’t love to the fullest but I love better then I used to and the more I risk faith, the better I love.
      Tracking in the right direction is the best human outcome possible. The fullness of love comes later.

      Well said, Paul. This is a worthy and vital aspiration, amidst all of the confusion and biases that we human beings bring to the table.

      April 18, 2018
  2. Paul Johnston #

    So I’m reading this post again…and I’m sure again after that….I often do with, what I think is, your best writing and I say to myself, “I hope Ryan is keeping a journal of posts regarding the more difficult issues of our time.”

    I get not posting them in this forum. You did that once as I recall and the ensuing sh..storm was polarizing to the point of stupidity…Well at least as far as I remember my (non)contributions.

    That being said though, I think you are an important and neccesary voice for our times. The Jordan Peterson phenomena has convinced me that good people are starved for good writing that frames the appropriate questions in an engaging and fair minded way.

    You have always asked great questions and like Peterson you build both a very rational and inspiring framework around your questions and efforts to answer them.

    Further I think your personal experience of being educated through a postmodern paradigm and your open profession of faith give you a perspective that is lacking in Dr. Peterson’s writing.

    Like Peterson though, it will be essential for you to, “dumb it down a little” without compromising the spiritual and intellectual integrity of your work. More people need to understand important writing then just the smartest people in the room, so to speak.

    So get busy, son. Lol. We need a book from you!

    Think big. Nothing less then how to live a Christian life in 21st century will do. We need good people like you to start this conversation.

    People like me, the salesmen, cheats and liars, who on our best days, when we walk with the Lord, become the prophets capable of great spiritual influence, need your wisdom. 😊

    April 19, 2018
    • Thank you, Paul. I really appreciate your encouragement and affirmation of the work I do here.

      Re: a book about how to live a Christian life in the 21st century… Well, we’ll see. 🙂 Based on conversations I’ve had with people who have written books, I’m not immediately convinced that I’d reach more people with a book than a blog, but who knows.

      Re: people “like you”—salesmen, cheats and liars… I’m in the same boat, my friend. 🙂 And I need the wisdom of others, too.

      April 20, 2018

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