The Mark of Mature Thinking
The mark of mature thinking is the capacity to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously and make sense of them all. This idea has its roots in the postmodern movement, which states (essentially) that all attempts to describe reality are models, not reality itself, and therefore, the more models you can consider, the more accurate your description of reality will be. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
This is a useful way to think about personal development. How well are you able to consider all sides of an issue, and also acknowledge that there are sides you can’t possibly see, particularly in your emotional life? I’m thinking specifically of abuse and other emotionally charged issues. In my own life, I was verbally, emotionally, and physically abused by an alcoholic father who seemed to delight in making his wife and children suffer. It was a massive paradigm shift for me when, after several years of work on it, I was able to move from “He’s a horrible bastard” to “He’s a broken, miserable person, and he’s accountable for how he treated his family.”
Both are true. My father was a cruel tyrant, but he was also a victim of abuse. He was a self-pitying, victim-mentality loner, frustrated in all aspects of his life, and he took it out on his family. He is both a tragic figure and a cruel tyrant. He suffered, but that is not an excuse to treat his family (or anyone else) as he did. I can forgive him (I have forgiven him), but I also hold him accountable, which means that, unless he acknowledges his accountability, there is very little basis for a relationship with him.
This “conflicting” view of my father was both enlightening and liberating for me. It was an enlightening view of human nature, in all its complex glory, and has permanently altered the way I view all behavior, including my own: the black and white is easy, it’s the shades of gray where the challenge and adventure lie. And it was liberating because I was freed of the burden of judgment. It was no longer about deep hurts and resentments; it was about objective facts.
Mature thinking does not mean we ignore our emotions, and I am not saying I ceased to have feelings about my abuse. I am only saying that the emotions were only one piece of the picture. Granted, a very important piece. But in order to resolve my knotted up emotions, I had to reach a more mature level of thinking. I had to move beyond my big emotions and see the issue in a larger context. Doing so produced some conflicting ideas, but seeing all those ideas as possible was the key to resolution.
Being able to see contradictory ideas as simultaneously true applies to everything, of course, including science, philosophy, and human nature. Reality is complicated. The more facets of any issue we’re able to see, the closer our model will be to reality. It is so very important to be open-minded, especially about emotionally charged issues. We do not have to give every idea equal weight, but we ought to give each one serious consideration.
It’s hard to hold contradictory ideas as simultaneously true because doing so requires a fairly habitual effort at critical, analytical thought, something that’s become unpopular in our culture of instant gratification and mind-numbing media. A constant temptation exists to reduce, categorize, and dismiss things that don’t make sense or don’t mesh with our point of view. If we don’t like someone, for example, it can be easy to believe only negative things about him and disbelieve the positive. Politics is a terrific example of people taking one-sided stands and refusing to consider the merits of the other side. (It’s also one of the silliest, because partisan politics have very, very little to do with the significant events taking place in the world.) The point is, mature thinking demands that we resist the temptation to reduce ideas to fit our beliefs and instead, continually grow our beliefs to take in bigger ideas; these bigger ideas can be contradictory, and yet, the ability to make sense of them is key to a mature thought process.
When we are able to hold contradictory ideas in the same space and see validity in each one, an amazing thing starts to happen. Seemingly contradictory ideas become part of a larger picture that is not contradictory at all. It only looked that way from our limited viewpoint. If you’ve ever had the “aha” experience of suddenly understanding a concept that was previously baffling, then you know what this means. If you are on a path of growth and personal betterment, you will have a lot of these moments. With each one, your model of reality expands and your sphere of knowledge increases. Every time this happens, there is a little more compassion in the world, a little more tolerance, a little more understanding, and a little less ignorance. Seeing more and more shades of gray may not solve all the world’s problems, but it is certainly an essential aspect.
Categorised as: Critical Thinking