Thoughtful Opinions This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

February 21, 2018

     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. Yet here 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 this knowledge, each person would have to figure out for themselves, for example, what kinds of foods are edible, what is two plus two, how do you construct a shelter that will stand up? Yet thankfully we know this already, thanks to those who figured it out for us long ago. We can instead add to that knowledge, and have chefs, spaceships, and high-rise buildings.
     However, when one enters the realm of beliefs and ideas, one finds a darker side to this inheritance as well. For 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 we did not think about whether it was right for women to be inferior, for example, as had been taught as fact for generations, we would not have had a women’s movement and changed our cultural perception from one where domination of women was accepted, to one which supports equal rights.
     In today’s world, we are constantly being presented with information, ideas, and beliefs, many of which 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 which they state as fact. We don’t bother thinking about it for ourselves, we just believe. This is exactly what JFK was trying to tell us. If each of us does not consciously think about this information for ourselves and come to our own conclusions drawn from everything presented to us, 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 only by coming up with our own opinions and sharing them can we present our real selves, and help in any way to advance the powers of truth and honesty.
     An example of how the spread of opinion without thought can be dangerous can be seen today in the drama over “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 and doing any examination of the story’s sources to find out its validity, especially if it 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 they have been presented with, take on the story’s opinions as their own, and begin to act on these inaccuracies.
     If we just stopped for a moment to think about what we read and hear, and formed our own opinions, we would be a more thoughtful, more intelligent, and more 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 towards 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 if we so choose. Hopefully, we can learn to experience and appreciate the “discomfort of thought” and to find in our thoughts some strong opinions we can truly call our own.

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