Kathy Walters: Not-knowing and forming opinions

Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to disagree. Often it’s when I’m among a group of friends — at a dinner party for example — and someone offers a simple explanation to a complex issue. Though at the time I felt I didn’t have enough information to disagree, I, too, like the others end up passively agreeing by offering up a quick-witted comment or keeping quiet. The problem comes a few days later when I realize I’m silently repeating, and could end up believing, someone else’s opinion I hadn’t resolved myself. And I’m doing so because at the time I chose to be agreeable to fit in.

We all want to be agreeable. At an unconscious and emotional level, we often believe agreeability will buy us the love and approval we seek. But we face some pretty steep challenges to be able to notice that ulterior motive.

In some cases, we agree because we may simply not see we’ve succumbed to insufficient reasoning. We are easily hooked by cause and effect reasoning which is fine for explaining how a toilet flushes, but for complex issues like global warming with many underlying mechanisms at work, it is not sufficient. Psychologists say we often fool ourselves into believing we understand how complex systems work when our true understanding is actually very superficial. It’s only when we are asked to explain a complex issue that we confront our lack of understanding.

And once we’ve committed to an opinion, we’ll resist questioning or changing it. Partly, because our brains are hard-wired to be on the lookout for threats, including threats to our thinking. And this negativity bias can keep us steeped in fear and narrow-mindedness, blindly holding onto rigid judgements. In addition, psychologists say we are desperate to be seen as someone consistent. Rather than admit a mistake, which would shatter our self-image, we defend ourselves.

And finally, we might too easily agree simply because today’s modern world is so complicated, we’d rather forgo our own inquiry and rely on someone else’s just to put an issue behind us. The obvious problem with that approach is we allow “group think” to lead us.

So to avoid uncertainty, protect our ego, or move-on, we may buy into someone’s opinion even though it’s not what we’d choose to believe. We hold back from joining a conversation for fear of saying the wrong thing or causing offense. Or we too easily chime-in when our gut is telling us there’s much more to consider. From one conversation to the next, we might alternate between these strategies, believing this is making us feel better when all we are doing is bypassing what really makes us happy: the deeper satisfaction found in inquiry, vulnerability and uncertainty.

Spiritual leaders have for millennia advocated uncertainty, or “not-knowing,” as a path to enlightenment. To some degree, we all experience “not-knowing:” Recall those moments when you are trying to solve a problem and cannot come to a solution. Eventually, you give up, and then when you’re relaxed and no longer puzzling over it, the answer simply pops into your head.

But being uncomfortable with uncertainty does not imply we remain ignorant. For inspiration can only happen when our brain has lots of new information to work with. As much as it’s beneficial to have periods of a quiet mind, we must also feed our mind. Our mind is thirsty for knowledge and we get much pleasure from seeking new information and perspectives. This means we must be willing to ask many questions and risk not knowing.

I know, for me, it’s going to feel unnerving to say at some future dinner party, “I don’t agree, and I don’t know why, but let’s explore some other options.” But I’d bet others would really appreciate me speaking up. I’ll bet, having stimulated the group’s curiosity, someone else might be inspired to risk questioning consensus. And it’s possible that I’ll find my deeper truth. I might discover that on those occasions when I too easily agreed, it was love and approval I was seeking. Now, by speaking my mind, I could receive that from myself.

Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy. She works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.


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