Hey there, folks! That capital “H” should let you know this is a guest blog, and indeed, it is. Josh here, terri’s eldest son, and keeping with the tradition of guest blogging, today’s my birthday. Given the fact that I started life being resistant to change (30 hours in labor means mom should get more than one day a year off blogging), and well, it’s a fun tradition, here I am!
As you may have read, Birthday Wisdom is a particular custom in my family, started by mom’s dad years ago. Some people have fruitcake around the holidays, we have this, and like that dense confection, results are definitely mixed. A few years ago I (accidentally) plagiarized some of mom’s words for my wisdom presentation, and when the table erupted in true and pointed accusations, I put out the fire with gasoline by reaching for the first thing that popped into my mind, which happened to be more plagiarized words. The Fiasco of 2015…Ah, you should have been there. It was hilarious.
So today, hopefully, is an original thought – a thought about the danger of a particular question. There’s that old phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” If you’re reading this blog anyway, you know that to be patently untrue. However, I usually think of the words hurting being those directed at me, not uttered by me. “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds” sang Mr. Marley (not Scrooge’s), and if that’s the case, then our own language is often the jailer. Language can bind, blind, and deafen ourselves to the world and our fellow humans.
Specifically, the question “How could they think that?” is a rhetorical grenade that we’re playing hot potato with, and recently, one did me real harm. (The story is beside the point, except that it’s caused me great sadness, and well, let’s build something with it, right?) How could such a common phrase, often deployed in a seemingly innocent manner in pain and confusion, be so harmful? Well, I’d opine that it’s not the question itself, but how it’s asked.
It’s built on two faults: laziness (it’s always easier to label something difficult as impossible, as it absolves one of the responsibility of solving the problem), and the intentional misuse of a question. It’s phrased as a question, but meant as a rhetorical question, not wishing an answer, only sympathetic agreement, and that’s a lie – to ourselves, and to everyone listening. Do we really want to know? To be fair, I don’t think we often realize this lie, but it’s a bit too easy for a truth.
Here’s the danger, and the magic, if we ask the same question, but mean to know the answer.
If we truly wish to know how could they think that, chances are there’s logic behind their thought. Dale Carnegie states that “no man believes himself to be wrong”, and I agree…except when I’m having a bad day, and then I call mom and wail “Oh EVERYTHING I do is wrong…!”, but I digress….
Chances are, if the person thinks a certain way, they have good reason to, even the monsters, which puts us on shaky ground, indeed. This is a dangerous, but necessary place for us to visit. It forces us to examine our own thoughts and logic, which, if they’re anything like mine, probably aren’t as sterling as we’d hope. It prods us to formulate our own ideas, and move beyond secondhand opinions, ideology, and little infographics we saw on Facebook. They certainly are comfortable, but deep down, we know that nuance isn’t neat. And if we’re talking about extreme cases – beyond the political or religious divide – the extremists, the murderers, the people “we’d never be like”, well, are we so sure? What exactly is different about us? More dangerous still, we might find some parts of our thinking that we’ve outgrown, and realize it’s time to let them go. The question can literally cause the death of our comfortable ways of thinking, forcing us to find a new way in a suddenly dark landscape – but therein lies the hope for growth and salvation. Perhaps the key is within reach once we unclench from the baggage we’ve been clutching so desperately. That mental house of cards…has it become our jail? Perhaps protecting it has become more of a liability then the asset of the original thought. Are we worrying about a rental minivan getting a door ding? (Fiercely guarding mediocre thoughts that aren’t really our own.)
Recently, I’ve been making a study of perspectives. I’m starting to slowly, very slowly, see how other people might view the world. At the very least, it’s brought me peace in a turbulent time. At best, new ideas and an expanded outlook. Although there are many examples, one leaps to mind. I have a Jehovas Witness friend who comes to visit, and man, talk about polar opposites. He’s a well-dressed, God-fearing, African American gentleman with a real job. I hope he doesn’t notice the fossil on the front porch as I stick my feet under the ottoman that’s filled with guitar magazines. “Man, should have cut my toenails” I think to myself. During our last visit I learned two important things from him. 1. After years of trying to figure out their personal opinions, I learned that the JW faith is to remove oneself from the equation, and preach directly from scripture. “OHHH.” 2. He shared just a bit of his life story, and how he came to the faith. I get him a lot more now. I’ve also told him I don’t envy the task he’s set for himself to try to bring me into the fold, as it’s highly unlikely, but Mr. C. is my neighbor, new friend, and someone I see who’s trying to live in a manner that he sees as right with clarity, conviction, and courage. He’s welcome in my home anytime, and is due in over the weekend. I don’t believe in the same way that he does, quite the opposite, but through our conversations, I now see how he could think that. He showed up to bring some good news, and indeed he did, although not the kind he thought. This helps me exist more peaceably in a world where people think fundamentally different, and their difference isn’t only something tolerable, but worthy, as it gives me new ideas, pushes me to define myself, and illustrates that, yet again, the opposite of my right isn’t always wrong. There’s room for both, and I can breathe again.
To conclude, the question “How could they think that?”, can be destructive or transformative, and the choice is ours. But then again, it usually is, isn’t it?
It’s good to be here. Thanks for listening. And big props to my mama for those 30 hours 33 years ago, and all of the time in between.
check out josh’s latest project at www.joshurban.com/kindness