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Thoughtful Opinions MAG
This essay was written for a college honors application which asked the student to
reflect on JFK’s quote: “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
In our Western culture, where individualism is valued and the ability to make one’s own decisions is stressed, John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought,” reveals an unpleasant truth about the beliefs and opinions we like to call our own.
The quote describes the carelessness with which we often take on new opinions. Much of what we know and believe has been taught to us by others, and we often accept this information without spending much time thinking it over for ourselves. A distinction must be made between the sharing of developed and proven knowledge and the sharing of beliefs and ideas which may differ among cultures, generations, and individuals.
Collective learning – our ability to learn from the successes and failures of others – saves us a great deal of time and effort. Without inherited knowledge, each person would have to figure out for themselves, for example, what kinds of foods are edible, what two plus two equals, how to construct a shelter that stands up. We know these things already, thanks to those who figured them out for us long ago. We can instead add to that knowledge, and have chefs, spaceships, and high-rise buildings. Progress can be made.
However, there is a darker side to this inheritance as well. What if our sources of knowledge – traditional or contemporary – are wrong or their ideas are no longer appropriate for our time? If we do not constantly contemplate and reassess our deeply held beliefs, there is no way forward. If people did not think about whether it was right for women to be treated as inferior to men – a belief that had been passed down for generations – we would not have had a women’s movement or a population that believes in equal rights for all.
In today’s world, we are constantly being presented with information, ideas, and beliefs that often contradict each other. Psychology tells us that if we hear an idea enough times, or if it comes from someone we respect or view as an authority, we will likely believe that idea. In these cases, we base our opinions on the opinions of others. We don’t bother thinking for ourselves; we just believe. This is exactly what JFK was trying to tell us. If individuals don’t consciously think about the information they are presented with, we become nothing more than parrots quoting the opinions of someone who in turn, parroted them to us.
I often find myself guilty of this. In the middle of a conversation, I’ll find myself nodding along with whatever my friend is saying. Yet later, when thinking it over for myself, I realize I have a different opinion. Figuring this out after the conversation is over is extremely frustrating. I have come up with my real opinion too late to engage in the conversation, and I am disappointed in myself for mindlessly agreeing with what was being said.
As I know from first-hand experience, trying to think through all the opinions being shared as you hear them is hard, as is having the confidence to speak up when you disagree.But it is only by forming our own opinions and sharing them, that we can we present our real selves, and help to advance the powers of truth and honesty.
Today, there is a lot of drama and controversy surrounding the term “fake news.” One of the most influential factors in the spread of inaccurate stories are people who believe whatever they read and then share the story without thinking about the facts or investigating the source of the story – especially if the story is agreeable to them. All it takes is one quick click of the “share” button on Facebook, and the story travels on its way to influence even more unthinking readers. This can have serious consequences, as more and more people read the untrue stories, take on the story’s opinions as their own, and begin to act on these inaccuracies.
If we just stop for a moment to think about what we read and hear and form our own opinions, we will be more thoughtful, intelligent, and creative people – but few take that time.
Yet we need not despair over this unfortunate habit of ours. In fact, simply becoming aware of it is the first step toward correcting it. Awareness is a prelude to thinking, and once we become aware that we tend to take on and hold opinions and beliefs without thinking them through, we can change that pattern of behavior. We can learn to experience and appreciate the “discomfort of thought” and to find in our minds some strong opinions we can truly call our own.