During my sophomore year in college I took a political science class taught by the former Ambassador to the Ivory Coast. Twice a week he’d amble into a windowless room with a lesson plan clutched against his wiry frame. I’d watch carefully as he tossed his notes to the side like some lint on a flap pocket or pebble from his boot.
For two and half hours he’d regale us with stories, remarkable ones, from a life well crafted. Tales of presidents, dictators, intellectuals, peppered in with verbal op-eds of policy failures and bureaucratic bungles filled our impressionable minds. He had more stories than Aesop.
Yet, it wasn’t the exploits of dinners with Castro or his postings to the former Soviet Union I remember most. Instead, it was his etched words that filled the right column of a paper I turned in.
“Nick, I don’t much understand what you’re trying to say and I suppose you don’t either. See me.”
I pictured him huddled over a kerosene lit desk, quill in hand, staring blankly into my Helveticafont as if it were Sanskrit. The wind of a merciless central New York winter knocking firmly on his window as he cried “Imbecile!” pounding his frail fist on a stack of superior papers.
Okay, that’s probably not how it happened but my imagination felt untethered, my daydreams more elaborate than my outlines. I spent most of my time learning my own inner workings. I was trying desperately to shape a meaningful type of being in the world.
I’d plant myself in a quiet corner of the library before my soul would grow restless, begging for an aimless stroll to wander, to dream — to think. A class that charted the complex politics of the world, however enlightening, seemed of little consequence to a young man trying to make peace accords with his own mind.
All this to say, I recall few details about the assignment but do remember slapping together some pretty prose in hopes of veiling the reading I failed to do. I was certain the truth would reveal itself if I just rambled far and wide.
A week later, I agreed to meet the professor in his office nestled in the school of public affairs. I dragged one foot after another making my way up the spotless staircase. I knocked lightly as he sat buried in a stack of presumably better-written papers before lifting his gaze and inviting me to sit down.
He adjusted his glasses before peering at my rambling words, instantly jogging his memory of who I was and what business I had sharing his cramped quarters.
“Okay,” he said, a wry smile breaking the plain of his lips. “This just doesn’t make any sense now does it?”
“No,” I told him apologetically.
We spoke for a few moments before I grabbed my bag and headed back into the frigid Syracuse night.
Though brief, our exchange was memorable. My shoddy work was an embarrassment, a feeble attempt to just get by. But it also turned out to be a teachable moment.
In time, I began to realize my ideas were rarely thought through. The ones that seemed coherent were often parroted from people who had the courage to think independently. I seemed almost afraid of what I could say and who I might become if I illuminated my ignorance. I was young and still trying to figure out the world and what role I might play in it.
But what I discovered is I needed to cultivate a space to think for myself. I had to find the courage to share my take on the world — to have a point of view. Only then could I construct a belief system, which through a sum total of life experiences and failures would contribute to a vision I could one day give voice to.
Nearly two decades after that fateful day, I still catch myself distancing who I’ve become with who I once was. I cringe at the stale thinking, the cliches, and time I wasted. But perhaps I shouldn’t. After all, in order for an evolution to take shape there must first be a place to evolve from.
Today, I feel more at peace with being wrong and recognize that just because something offends me doesn’t mean it is devoid of truth. I also recognize the perils of not thinking critically, the danger of herd mentality, and the power of spirited discourse, especially with oneself.
Thinking independently is an act of courage, the best kind of defiance. We risk when we share. Once we put forth our ideas they march through dark tunnels en route to the arena of ridicule and scrutiny. It is here our thoughts clash against others that are equally, or better armed. We may win one round before being struck down by a superior opponent. But ideas, good or not so good, cannot be prodded, poked, or pulled unless we have the courage to first breathe life into them.
The ancient Greek philosophers knew this all too well. Plato observed our tendency to cling to beliefs derived from “doxa,” or from the crowd. The very expression “common sense,” implies a standard of thought that is ordinary or familiar. He likened following our passion without questioning its merit to being dragged through life by a pack of blindfolded horses.
And Aristotle’s impetus for developing a culture of spirited debate and persuasive speech, known today as rhetoric, developed out of frustration. The great philosopher grew weary of people’s refusal to engage with logic when making up their minds. He recognized the need and power of teaching people to give voice to their thoughts in influential and introspective ways.
Progressive thought and three-dimensional ideas come first from asking questions, from admitting our ignorance. Before the scientific revolution, most people held a relatively bleak outlook on life. But it was the illumination of all that was unknown that ultimately sparked innovation, drive, and newfound purpose.
But we don’t pick apart conventional wisdoms and traditions for the sake of being contrarian but rather to shed light on the other possibilities nobody has bothered to cast light upon.