Seeking wisdom in times of trouble

With the billions of people in the world, there is quite a lot of variation. Nonetheless, we like to categorize and group things together. It’s convenient, it helps us make decisions, it’s also generally wrong.

As I write this, the world is facing a global pandemic and a number of Americans are protesting or rioting over police brutality and racism. Emotions are high and thoughts are often wild. Information comes to us from every direction.

In times like this were are apt to make snap decisions. We’ve all been subject to a bombard of information and misinformation from both power sources and motivated individuals.

It would be crazy to call on people not to form opinions. We have to have opinions. I can’t say that you should believe nothing you read or see. We have to believe something.

What I advise is to be flexible in your thinking. Don’t get too attached to any one narrative or belief. Try to keep an open mind as you take in new information. Evaluate what you have, but when you get new information, re-evaluate. Its OK to have been wrong in the past. We all start from knowing nothing to learning something, and not everything we learn will be right.

There is a virtue in being right, it’s a worthy goal, but to get there you must be willing to be wrong and admit to it when it comes to light. You have to remain open to new information and reasoning. Open doesn’t mean accepting. It’s worth being critical, but even in being critical of an idea, you should listen to it, consider its merits, and try to fully understand it.

Group-think is dangerous

One of the tools we often use when faced with uncertainty is to look to others for leadership. That can come from an individual or it can come from a social group. That’s not always a bad strategy, especially if you don’t have good information yourself, or you are having trouble figuring things out.

That said, group-think also poses many dangers. In the case of leaders, you open yourself up to manipulation. In the case of group-think, you run the risk that no one in the group has really thought the problem through and it is only emotion that is driving the thinking. Emotion is important, but it can lead to the worst kinds of decision making in the absence of reason to guide it.

The worst kind of group think is where we decide what is right or wrong based on who says it. If “our side” says it, then it must be true and if “their side” says it it must be wrong. Or the moral equivalent, what they do is evil and what we do is good. I see this kind of thinking a lot when emotions are running high.

This is not to condone being in a group or having loyalty to it. There are many good reasons to work together with others. There are reasons where loyalty to others who show loyalty to you is very important. I think however, a practice of being loyal in action but independent in thinking is the best balance. Not everyone on a team needs to think the same, but they do need to act in a coordinated way to be effective.

Always be wary of wishful thinking

After group think, wishful thinking is the most common sort of bad thinking I find. Hope is wonderful, and its fine to have an optimistic attitude about challenges you face. Wishful thinking takes this a step further and insists that what you hope for is the truth.

What we hope for is sometimes an idea that benefits us directly, but other times it comes from a darker place, what we wish is true about those who we see as enemies. It’s much easier to really hate someone when we believe the very worst about them. It is likewise easy to be deceived when we try very hard to believe the best about people who we think could help us.

It’s hard to separate what we want from what is, but we should ask ourselves, do I believe this because I want to believe it, or because there is good evidence it is true and little evidence it is false? That’s a struggle

Why I wrote this

I write this because I want to contribute something. My nature is to have somewhat muted emotions. I’m still prone to the errors above, but perhaps a bit less because my passions don’t often rise as high. I have something of an aversion to being part of a group or identifying as a member of a team. I’m stubbornly independent.

So what I can contribute are these qualities and their virtues such as they are. If they can help ground others, or give them some insight then I feel satisfied that I am helping others in some way. Other people have their own virtues, their passion, their commitment, and so on. I leave those concerns in their hands.

I didn’t want to inject my own political or practical views about the issues of the day here because I don’t want to prejudice the reader against my advice. I think it applies equally to folks on both “sides” of many contentious issues.

Solving problems does often require decisive action, but that action should also involve wisdom once the course is set. Passions drive what we should do, reason drives how we should do it.


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