Not all Questions Are Created Equal

questions

Not long ago, I had a very interesting conversation with someone I’ll call “John.”  The two of us talked about many subjects during our meandering dialogue.  At one point, to my complete surprise, John said, “I don’t need to question things.  Why would I want to do that?  My head already feels completely full of all kinds of ideas and knowledge.”

I was very much surprised by what John had said.  I also knew, based upon this single exchange, that he and I were very different kinds of people.

Unlike John, I’ve always been inquisitive.  I don’t accept things at face value and I have this instinctive need to dig deeper.  Though, like him, my head sometimes feels full, I find that I’m still hungry and always up for a bit of intellectual nibbling.

I frequently feel intellectually inadequate and humbled by the great mysteries of existence.  The world (and everything in it) is so big and fascinating and multifaceted and seemingly unknowable.  Those who think of themselves as questioners can never feel like they know or understand enough.

Because I’m an educator, I also try to help others see the value of asking questions.  By the way, there are all kinds of queries and not all of them are created equal.

For example, there are questions that begin with the word “how.”  Life forces us to ask these because we live in a world that prizes getting things done.  “How” questions are often about process, about the steps involved in accomplishing some task, making them very goal-oriented and practical but not very philosophical.  For instance, one might ask, “How are enchiladas made?”  This question is not about finding out why some of us become foodies or others don’t.  This query, when asked and answered, simply helps us prepare a wonderful Tex-Mex dish.

Then there are questions that start with the word “what.”  Like many “how” questions, these are often “closed.”  For example, if you ask, “What is the capital of Latvia?” there is only one possible answer and Riga would be it.  It is not possible to answer Caracas to the question without being utterly wrong.  I called these “closed” questions because once the answer is given, the interrogative has been completed.  “What” questions of this type lead nowhere beyond a correct (or incorrect) response.

Many questions that begin with the word “why” are very important because they can serve to “open” the mind.  “Why” questions are about causes and often provoke profound thought and  analysis.  For example, “Why have I chosen to be an educator?” might lead to the answer “Because I have always loved learning.”  Such an answer might prompt, “But why is learning so important to me?” which would lead to another answer that could then be examined with a “why” question.  As you can see, these kinds of queries force the questioner to burrow down and help uncover important truths about ourselves, the world, and other people.  They provide the questioner with a tool that can lead to new lines of inquiry.

Mixed Feelings and Conflicting Thoughts

I really like CP’s writing, so I’m reblogging his “Mixed Feelings and Conflicting Thoughts.” His blogs are always engaging, insightful, and edifying. So, without further delay, I give you a really nice piece from Papagni Pages…

Papagni Pages

We live in a time of extreme superficiality and greed.  I watched highlights of the arrival of “stars” to this year’s Met Gala and all I could think about was excess, but who am to judge. Some would argue that the Gala is raising millions of dollars for good causes and I’m sure that is true; however, I know from experience (I ran a foundation for 10 years) that in order to make money, you have to spend money. Charity on that level is extremely complicated. I am certain there were millions spent on this event and I can’t help but wonder how many people could have benefited from that money.

https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/video/2019/may/07/lady-gagas-met-gala-transformation-in-one-minute-timelapse-video

I wonder if Lady Gaga struggled with the amount spent to display her dress? For me, there is only one answer to this question and that answer is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is how I live…

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

the stories we tell ourselves

At work, as part of our professional development, I (along with several colleagues) have been reading and talking about Make It Stick, a book written by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, on the psychology of learning.

The other day, I was given the task of leading the discussion on chapter four, intriguingly titled “Avoid Illusions of Knowing.”  That reading, and the accompanying conversation, inspired me to write this blog.

Early in the chapter, the authors argue that all humans have a “hunger for narrative” and that this arises “out of our discomfort with ambiguity and arbitrary events.”  In other words, because life often seems so random and incomprehensible, we create stories that help us make sense of what seemingly appears to be nonsensical.  For example, if we fail at some important task and find this failure surprising and upsetting, we tell ourselves that someone or something else was the cause of our poor performance.  This story serves an important psychological function:  It helps shift the blame to something external to us—something beyond our control—and therefore acts as a kind of psychological salve.

The authors go on to say that we also create stories that help us construct an identity and worldview.  In my case, when I think of who I am, I have a story I tell myself that goes something like this.  I come from a working-class background.  My early life was chaotic because I grew up in an unstable family.  As a result, I was often alone and lonely.  This caused me to become an introvert, thoughtful, and creative.  I also didn’t have brothers and sisters during my earliest formative years so I had to learn to entertain myself and become self-sufficient.  Today, because of the way I grew up, I am tough and attracted to solitary, creative pursuits.  In politics, I also champion the underprivileged because I empathize with this class of people.

Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel explain that we create such narratives because they help us “fit the events of our lives into a cohesive story that accounts for our circumstances, the things that befall us, and the choices we make.”  In other words, we construct an identity through the telling and retelling of what amounts to personalized myths of who we are and how we came to be.

Here’s the problem.  These stories become self-fulfilling prophecies.  In my case, because I have always seen myself as a creative loner, I have come to act like a creative loner.  Though the identities we’ve constructed for ourselves provide us with a stable sense of self, they can also limit us.  In my case, when I’m being entirely honest with myself, I have to say that though there is some truth to this “self” I have constructed, it ignores other aspects of my personality and personal history.  I had, for instance, a large extended family, including lots of cousins that I loved spending time with.  I am also happily married and generally enjoy myself when I’m among a large group of like-minded individuals.  In other words, I have a history of being with others and acting quite sociable.

Here’s my point, we all have this idea in our heads about who we are, but we need to remember that the self we’ve constructed is, indeed, just a story we’ve created.  This story, though it certainly does contain some important truths about how we see ourselves, it is also likely an exaggeration or an oversimplification.

What do you think about this idea of the “constructed self?”  How accurately does the self you think you are match the self you think others see when they look at you?  Have you created a self that limits you in some important way?

All very important considerations and questions.

The Problem with Arrogance

the problem with arrogance

When I was growing up, there was a very common euphemism that was used when referring to those who behaved arrogantly.  Such people were said to be “full of themselves.”  I don’t know if folks still use this phrase or not.  Today, because the average person generally spends less time beating around the bush, it is highly likely that he or she would be more direct, saying the following instead: “Arrogant people are full of shit.”

Because arrogant people are full of themselves and they are, by definition, shitty people, that makes them full of shit.   I suppose I’ve just proved, using a kind of syllogistic logic, that arrogant people can be both full of themselves and shitty.  Actually, they are shitty because they are very much themselves.

(You can probably tell that I really get off on playing around with language and ideas.)

I wanted to be sure to start this one off by letting you know, in no uncertain terms, what I think of arrogance and those who display it in their behavior.  Today, most Americans—and I am one; at least my passport makes this assertion—are really getting schooled on arrogance because we have a president who is so effusively self-congratulatory that I actually end up either blushing or cringing every single time he speaks about any subject.  Invariably, no matter the topic at hand, he’ll find some way to brag and then pat himself on the back.  I find such behavior juvenile and off-putting in the extreme.

I want to pivot away from Trump and start talking about arrogance in general.  It was good, though, that I began this blog with him because he is a prime example of one of the main ways arrogance negatively affects a person, so I’ll return to the subject of America’s obnoxious president very shortly.

Arrogance is not one of the Seven Deadly Sins but it should be.  When we behave arrogantly we sin against ourselves and others.  We sin against ourselves by believing, quite falsely, that we are the greatest.  Being the greatest means that we are the most capable, the most intelligent, etc., etc., etc.  It means we are superior in every way and therefore there is no one—and I mean NO ONE—who can tell us anything that we don’t already know.  The arrogant see themselves as the founts of all knowledge.  They see themselves as sages.  They are the enlightened and the experts.  Everyone should listen to what they have to say.  They don’t need to open their ears, though, because there is nothing they need to hear or learn.  There is no one who is capable of teaching them anything they don’t already know.

Arrogance is a form of delusion.  Arrogance is the enemy of good thinking.  Arrogance closes the ears and the mind and opens the mouth.  But what comes from the mouth is pure braggadocio.

Arrogance is causing Trump to self-destruct.  All people who behave arrogantly end up destroying themselves.  They push away people and ideas they need to embrace.  They worship themselves and never realize that they are nothing but false idols.  I’d feel sorry for them if I didn’t despise them so much.

I’m curious to hear what you’ve thought of this piece and the arguments I’ve made here.  The floor is yours…

Overthinking: A Nuanced Discussion

thinking ninja

I see some people posting blogs (and comments about them) on thinking and the role it plays in human life.  As someone who has expertise in thinking—especially in what some call “critical thinking”—I’ve been feeling more and more like chiming in.  (By the way, I actually prefer the term “creative thinking” to critical thinking because all healthy thinking is, de facto, critical.)  Therefore, when I hear the term “critical thinking,” I hear redundancy.  Because all good and healthy thinking is naturally “critical,” critical thinking is really just another way to say “thinking thinking.”  Do you get my drift?

Perhaps a better way to understand what I’m trying to say is this:  Criticality is built into the very fabric of good and healthy thinking.

You’ll notice that I’ve been using the word “healthy” a lot so far.  I think it’s really important to point out, before I get any deeper into my discussion, that I have to distinguish between thinking that is healthy and thinking that is unhealthy.

I have heard it said that all overthinking is somehow bad.  I would like to add a little nuance to such a claim because I don’t think that overthinking is necessarily problematic.  It depends on what is meant by “overthinking” and on whether or not the sort of thinking that’s being exercised is healthy or not.

Overthinking can be unhealthy if it is obsessive.  Obsession is a kind of thinking that is unhealthy.  Obsessive thinking is also ineffectual in the sense it is not used to come to any sort of conclusion or solve a problem or provide greater understanding or clarity.  The purpose of obsessive thinking—to the extent it can be called purposeful—is to perpetuate the obsession.  In a sense, obsessive thinking is a kind of thinking loop.  The same idea or thought pattern just keeps replaying in the head, thus crowding out everything else.  Healthy thinking—when it is done well or artfully—liberates the thinker because it (hopefully) leads to a breakthrough or even an epiphany.  Unhealthy thinking, when it takes the common form of obsessive thinking, enslaves the thinker.  He or she is unable to move beyond the obsession and is trapped.

Not all overthinking is unhealthy, though.  When I was in graduate school working on my MA and PhD in the liberal arts and humanities, I was trained to be a kind of critical thinking Ninja.  My analytic abilities were honed to a very fine point.  This point allowed me pierce through the surface of things and understand them deeply and profoundly.  In a sense, I was turned into someone who overthinks or hyper-thinks—I’m pretty sure I just invented a new word.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never accept things at face value.  Skilled critical or creative thinkers never stop asking questions.  They remain skeptical.  They tear apart and analyze and then reconstruct.  They try to build associations where none existed before.

Some might read this and call it overthinking.  I would call it hyper-thinking—the kind of thinking I can never turn off.  Nor should I ever want to it.  Why would I ever want to embrace artless or sloppy thinking?  I can’t come up with a single situation where doing so would be in my best interest or the right thing to do.

One who has the ability to think well should think well.

I’ve certainly given us some things to discuss.  The floor is yours…

Decide Who You Want to Be and How You Want to Live

Who do you want to be

I’m incredibly busy right now.  (That’s one of the reasons I sometimes don’t publish here as often as I’d like.)  I work full-time as the director of a writing center and I help my wife run her small business.  On top of all that, I’m a writer and an artist—one who is in the process of restarting his art career after recently selling, almost without even trying, several Prismacolor pencil on paper drawings.  As you might guess after reading all this, my biggest challenge is finding a way to do all these things and still eat and sleep.

As luck would have it, I had an important conversation with a very interesting woman—I’ll call her Mathilda—this past weekend.  Our conversation began with her telling me about how she’d immigrated from Germany to American several decades ago and about her unconventional views on just about every subject one might think of.  It then very quickly morphed into her sharing her thoughts about where so many people go wrong in how they live their lives.

She told me that people can learn a lot by observing animals.  Animals, it seems, live very simply and thus intelligently.  They prize shelter, sufficient food, and being part of a herd or swarm or gaggle or whatnot.  Because they have no concept of what it means to engage in conspicuous consumption, they do not waste or behave frivolously.  There was a time when humans were a lot wiser than they are now, a lot more “animal” in other words.  Somehow, though, human beings have been seduced by things, like status and the accumulation of things (especially money).  These accumulators believe that being wealthy is the key to happiness despite there being lots of evidence to the contrary.

She told me that she is now retired and lives with her American husband who is just as unconventional as she is.  (She told me that they met in an ashram in India quite a few years ago.)  She said the house they currently live in meets their needs, meaning that it isn’t grand, nor do they have air conditioning because they want to live naturally, as the animals do, so they open their windows and doors to let in the breeze.  During the hot parts of the day they nap.  During the cool parts they get active.  They also produce all their own food and live very intuitively and instinctively.  She said they own no TV and that they live as the Spartans did.  She stressed, throughout her telling of all this, that these were choices they’d made based on what they value and the kind of people they want to be.  Many (or even most) let circumstances dictate how they live and are fairly powerless.  My friend, on the other hand, said that she and her husband are consciously in control of their lives.

My conversation with Mathilda revealed to me that I needed to think about how I’ve been living and what my lifestyle is doing to me.  I needed to sit down and make a list of my priorities.  It occurs that many people today don’t really know who they are, want they want, where they want to go, and thus how to get there.  They don’t even know what they value.  This is shame.  This keeps people from deciding what’s important and what’s not.

In my own case, I want to be a good husband, a just and caring person, and very creative.  These are the things that matter to me.  How much money do I really need to be a good husband and caring person?  Absolutely nothing.  And what do I need to be creative?  I need time and enough money to keep a stock of art supplies.  That means I have to look very critically at how I’ve been living.  Am I throwing money away needlessly?  Am I wasting my time by watching TV and the like?  How many hours per week do I spend staring at my mobile phone and twiddling my thumbs?  The answers:  yes and too many.

My conversation with Mathilda made me do some self-examination and take stock.  What I found was a bit painful.  Even though I knew what was important to me, I was not being focused and self-disciplined enough.

What are those things that you most value?  What are your priorities?  What sort of person do you want to be?  What changes is it going to take in how you live for you to become your ideal self?  I’d like to hear your thoughts to these extremely important and personal questions.

This piece originally appeared in Pointless Overthinking.

 

How I Ended up Being Sent to Poland

flying to Poland

During the spring of 1993—a long time ago now—I was a young academician teaching at a community college called South Plains College located in Lubbock, Texas.  After a very weird series of events that, if depicted in painting form would resemble something done by Salvador Dali, I suddenly found myself unemployed and on the public dole.  As the government checks rolled in, I pounded the pavement to find work.  The only result of all that pounding is me developing a bad case of fallen arches.

I got desperate.  I became a human testimonial of the wisdom of the proverb “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  It was necessary for me to find work, and I was not finding it no matter how many doors I knocked on and CVs I handed out.  On a day where I simple reeked of so badly of frustration that no amount of cologne splashing could ever hide such an odor, I happened, partly by happenstance and partly by thinking outside the box, to hit upon the idea of applying to join the United States Peace Corps.  I’d always heard it said that becoming a Volunteer would be “the toughest job” I’d “ever love.”  Hell, tough or otherwise, if I could do all the paperwork and somehow get accepted, I’d have work, albeit challenging.

To make a long story short, I did get in though it took me nearly a year to complete the arduous application process.  The federal government, in all its infinite wisdom, decided to send me to Poland.  It was the best choice they could have made for me.  I’d always been intrigued by those countries that used to reside behind what we called “The Iron Curtain.”  As a boy, I’d always wondered how a curtain could be made of iron and dreamed of peeking behind such an odd partition.  Now was my chance.  And the government was even going to pick up the plane fare to get me there.  All I had to do upon arrival was pass what was called “Pre-Service Training.”  If I managed to do that, I’d be sent off to do educational consulting work and teacher training…