The Difficulty of Thinking

For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?

So says Alan Jacobs early in his engaging and helpful book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.  Ah yes, I thought, this seems like a good place to start. Very wise. Thinking is hard, and we don’t want to do it, preferring instead to wallow in comfortable error. And by “we,” I really mean “they” – those others who don’t share my convictions and need to read this book but probably won’t (Jacobs discusses using the “false we” in a later chapter). You know, those people, the ones who really need to learn “how to think.”

Jacobs’ book is a slightly uncomfortable experience in this way. Reading the passage above I had an immediate image of the sorts of people who “suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking” and the first person who came to mind was not, in fact, me. Part of the point of Jacobs’ book is that it probably should be (at least some of the time). To praise the arguments of How to Think and accept its diagnosis is to admit that I am sometimes wrong. And not wrong only about trivial, minor things, but wrong about big, consequential things, things worth arguing about.

It is not really a blinding lightning bolt of insight that I sometimes get things wrong. But, while it’s obvious, it’s really hard for me to admit, especially when what is being challenged is something important to me. Jacobs’ book is an attempt at “making an accurate diagnosis” of “the forces that act on us to prevent genuine reflection.” Yet, while reading I frequently found my initial response to the good doctor’s notes regarding what ails us was to try and diagnose others, rather than myself. Which, I guess, means that I have some work to do (and I’m not alone in this, I suspect).

Jacobs makes it easier to recognize my own failings by the way in which he models his commitments in the writing of the book (to state the rhetorical problem Jacobs faces: how do you advise people “how to think” without sounding like a pompous jerk?). At one point in the book, Jacobs discusses “in-other-wordsing” (basically, restating a person’s argument in a way that misrepresents the person’s actual position). Discussing this particular issue he starts into a personal example connected to various debates surrounding sexuality that have occurred in the Anglican church. I don’t have access to Jacobs’ inbox, but if you’re familiar at all with his comments online regarding some of these debates, I am sure that he could have selected any number of examples where an angry correspondent or Twitter follower has “in-other-wordsed” his own views on sexuality and faith, and I thought I knew where this anecdote was going. But, the example Jacobs uses is one where he was the person hammering out an angry blog comment and had to pause “because my hands were shaking so violently I couldn’t type accurately.” This is a small moment of vulnerability, easy to overlook in some ways, but one of the main takeaways from the book is that humility is fundamental to genuine thinking and this sort of example enriches that argument. Jacobs’ personal examples most often reveal his mistakes and shortcomings – his own failures to think – rather than describing his various victories over (or victimization at the hands of) an unthinking other. It would have been tempting, for me at least, to use at least a few of the illustrations in the book as a chance to point out the failings of my opponents and accusers (names changed to protect identities, of course). This might have been illustrative in a technical/formal way, but less powerful in contributing to Jacobs’ overall argument that to become good at thinking one must become a “certain kind of person” rather than simply master certain rules or techniques.

It is a good book, and has been widely reviewed and discussed, and I can only hope that is widely read, and taken to heart. The challenge is that it is much more difficult to become a particular kind of person than master a set of techniques. Thinking is difficult, and since it is difficult: “What is needed for the life of thinking is hope: hope of knowing more, understanding more, being more than we currently are. And I think we’ve seen, in the course of this book, the benefits that come to people who have the courage and determination to do the hard work of thinking. We have good cause for hope.”

Some random notes:

  • Jacobs comments on the ways his years teaching undergraduates and his participation in multiple (often conflicting) communities have contributed towards his “thinking about thinking.” I wish that he commented more on the relation between writing and thinking. Jacobs is a skilled writer, able to switch comfortably among different audiences (this book being an exemplary example of a lifelong academic writing for a general audience, and writing well). He’s mentioned “writing to think” in a blog post, but I thought there might have been some more room in the book for him to explore this connection (and I think he’d be an interesting guide).
  • I think I’m more pessimistic than Jacobs about the possibility of genuine “membership” (as described by C.S. Lewis) via social media (and to be clear, it’s not like Jacobs is a big booster of social media in this book). Regardless of a user’s intent, I think the architecture of most platforms actively works against it (part of the point of the architecture is to reduce the users to standardized bits of data that can be harvested for advertisers etc.). Jacobs describes how he has gotten some sense of genuine membership/community out of a private Twitter account, but I wonder if the key is that he “confine[d] the group almost completely to people I’ve met in person.”
  • While the book is not about mastering techniques, Jacobs does include a helpful “Thinking Person’s Checklist” at the back. Final item: “Be brave.”
  • I thought this was the best review of the book I’ve seen so far
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The Tech-Wise Family – Andy Crouch

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper PlaceThe Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With every article and book that I come across connecting anxiety/depression with smartphones and social media use (and there seems to be a deluge lately), this book seems more and more essential. Highly recommended if you have children (and even if you don’t) and are trying to think through the “proper place” for technology in your family (and really, your life). For a taste, here are the “Ten Tech-Wise Commitments” Crouch explores and defends in the book:

1 We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
2 We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
3 We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
4 We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
5 We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
6 We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
7 Car time is conversation time.
8 Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
9 We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
10 We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

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David Foster Wallace and Lost in the Cosmos (Goodreads Notes)

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help BookLost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was fascinating to read this at the same time as David Lipsky’s book-length interview with David Foster Wallace (Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself). Wallace and Percy have a set of overlapping interests (the modern self, desire, TV/celebrity, addiction etc.), along with a certain “smartest-guy-in-the-room” perspective and commitment to ideas (and, to be fair, both were likely the smartest guys in most rooms). The difference that comes across (and it may be partly due to the different formats of the books) is that Wallace really counts himself among the “lost” (Wallace had, if I remember correctly, a well annotated self-help library) while Percy keeps a certain ironic distance (it feels like Kierkegaard is the only self-help he needs). Which is to say, while I share many of Percy’s commitments, I feel a greater kinship with Wallace’s bewilderment and discomfort (and this may just be the result of age, format, and my own moral and intellectual weakness).

The stuff on “re-entry” is great, and it often reads like a set of Kierkegaard-ian parables (some stronger than others). Another way to look at the book is as a sort of modern wisdom literature – a collection that proceeds by juxtaposition, aphorism and parable, leaving the reader to do the work of discerning the appropriate connections and coming to the truth (the very opposite of most self-help literature with its tendency towards prefabricated steps to success).

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A world in need of amateurs

First, I am an amateur. If that strikes you as disappointing, consider how much in error you are, and how the error is entirely of your own devising. At its root lies an objection to cookbooks written by non-professionals (an objection, by the way, which I consider perfectly valid, and congratulate you upon). It does not, however, apply here. Amateur and nonprofessional are not synonyms. The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers— amateurs—it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral—it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness. In such a situation, the amateur—the lover, the man who thinks heedlessness a sin and boredom a heresy—is just the man you need. More than that, whether you think you need him or not, he is a man who is bound, by his love, to speak. If he loves Wisdom or the Arts, so much the better for him and for all of us. But if he loves only the way meat browns or onions peel, if he delights simply in the curds of his cheese or the color of his wine, he is, by every one of those enthusiasms, commanded to speak. A silent lover is one who doesn’t know his job.

From Robert F. Capon’s boisterous theological cookbook, Supper of the Lamb

Wodehouse: A Life

Wodehouse: A LifeWodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As one might expect, an author who published 90+ books in his lifetime (along with plays, articles, lyrics etc.) didn’t have much time for pursuits outside of writing. He was an unusually single-minded, almost compulsive, writer. Wodehouse is a tough subject for a biography – elusive and opaque – a “laureate of repression” in his fiction, as McCrum puts it. The most dramatic event in his life was his greatest public failing (the WWII broadcasts – a point where his single-mindedness led him seriously astray), and the rest of his life was consumed by his work, for the most part. McCrum does a nice job of avoiding unwarranted speculation about “the psychology of the individual” while also providing some helpful context. I enjoyed it.

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There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be percipitate, or he runs over it: he must not rush into the opposite extreme or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

Notes on Blindness

I opened the front door, and rain was falling. I stood for a few minutes, lost in the beauty of it. Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience …

This is an experience of great beauty. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me. I feel that the rain is gracious, that it has granted a gift to me, the gift of the world. I am no longer isolated, preoccupied with my thoughts, concentrating upon what I must do next. Instead of having to worry about where my body will be and what it will meet, I am presented with a totality, a world which speaks to me.

This description of rain falling in a garden is from John Hull’s fascinating book, Notes on Blindness (originally published as Touching the Rock). I searched out Hull’s book after stumbling across a reference in Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (and this is how I frequently figure out what to read – reading begets reading).

Notes on Blindness is a book that is all about paying attention – paying attention to the lived experience of blindness, but also paying attention to the world. It is part memoir, part philosophical investigation, part poetry (along with good amount of dream interpretation – the least successful part of the book, I think, but understandable given the importance of particularly vivid dreams in Hull’s experience of blindness). Hull’s meandering reflections (the book was originally a set of cassette tapes on which he recorded his thoughts over three years after finally losing his sight entirely) are beautiful, poignant, precise, strange. There is something of a narrative thread through the book as Hull moves from frustration to acceptance of the “dark, paradoxical gift” of blindness, but this is not a neatly packaged “triumph of the human spirit” sort of story (although Hull’s courage and sensitivity clearly comes through). It is more a series of discrete investigations as Hull runs his fingers over his emotions, thoughts and experiences, exploring the rough and smooth surfaces, the shape of life as a man gone blind in middle age. These investigations range from the mundane struggle of trying to change conversation partners during a church meeting coffee break, to moving reflections on losing the visual memory of faces (of his wife and children, eventually even his own), of feeling remote as a father of children he’s never seen and children whose appearance he can longer reliably remember. Or, here is Hull describing his changing experience of time:

Sighted people can bend time. For sighted people, time is sometimes slow, and sometimes rapid. They can make up for being lazy by rushing later on. Things can be gathered up quickly in a few minutes. … Time, for sighted people, is that against which they fight. For me, as a blind person, time is simply the medium of my activities. It is that inexorable context within which I do what must be done. … the reasons why I do not seem to be in a hurry as I go around the building is not that I have less to do than my colleagues, but I am simply unable to hurry. It takes me almost exactly twenty-two minutes to walk from my front door to my office. I cannot do it in fifteen minutes, and if I tried to take thirty minutes over it, I would probably get lost, because knowledge of the route depends, to some extent upon maintaining the same speed. …

… [For the blind person] you are no longer fighting against the clock but against the task. You no longer think of the time it takes. You only think of what you have to do. It cannot be done any faster. Time, against which you previously fought, becomes simply the stream  of consciousness within which you act. For the deaf-blind person, space is confined to his body, but he has lots of time.

This is a good example of what I mean when I describe the book as an account of paying attention to the world, of “looking” at things carefully (and yes, Hull spends time talking about the tendency to use visual metaphors for understanding). After reading this passage I reflected that the sighted person really can’t bend time, her sightedness only gives her the illusion that she can (cf. Mary Oliver: “Things take the time they take”). To try and “bend” time is like a fish trying to bend the course of the river it swims in. Hull, as a blind person, demonstrates a better grasp of what the world is actually like – the blind perspective challenging the illusions of the sighted.

I listened to the book as an audiobook from the library, which seemed appropriate (Hull discusses listening to books on tape – he was a professor of religious education, although the book seldom ranges into explicit theology). At times, while I was doing the dishes, I would find myself closing my eyes while standing at the sink, listening. When I first searched for the book, I found a moving documentary short (embedded below) based on Hull’s material. Apparently the short has since been expanded to a full-length film, which looks amazing (and if anyone knows how I can easily watch it in the US, let me know). If nothing else, the video is worth your time: