There’s something I’ve been kicking around in my head for a long time. Something that I was confident expressing halfway or in private, but never fully and never in an article.
Then last week, I saw someone on reddit write about essentially the exact same idea, better than I ever could have, and it got me all excited (queue that Emerson quote if you need to).
Basically the theory goes like this: most of the important understandings we come to in life arrive in three distinct stages. Whether it’s learning about people, the lessons of life or just history, it doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come in epiphanies. And this process–and whether we see it through–makes us who we are.
Take the Civil War. As a kid, you’re told that it was ‘the war to free the slaves.’ For lack of a better term for it, this is really just the summarized version of events–the one that teachers think you’ll be able to wrap your young brain around. The second version, you learned as you went through school or after picking up some subversive book; the war was a lot more complicated than you’d originally thought, its motives were not so clean-cut and, of course, politics and history are dirty and disturbing. Here it’s hard to know exactly why it happened because everyone comes off looking terrible. However, if you really study the Civil War, you reach the third stage where it becomes clear that, yes, it was entirely about slavery. (I mean, just read Lincoln’s profound and beautiful Second Inaugural Address.)
But if you’d listened to your fourth-grade teacher when she explained it? You’d have been wrong. Or more precisely, you’d be right, but for the wrong reasons. Because it was sanitized, it was just the essence of the facts. As for your teenage exploration (or occasionally contrarianism), that was wrong but for the right reasons. You should question things, but the questions you were asking made things less clear, not more so. Yet going through this process leads you back to the same place–the facts, it turns out, support the essence. Right, for the right reasons.
I say this not to make a point about the Civil War. Rather, everyone you meet and everything you read falls somewhere along this spectrum. They’re simplified (or summarized), mixed up or ultimately, wise and reasoned.
All theories tend to go this way. You can love the 10,000-hour theory of mastery or dismiss it as Malcolm Gladwell pop-psych, but talk to a real master–or master something yourself–and you’ll see, it’s all about the practice time. (For Gladwell, insert so many different common sense ideas.) And very often I’ve found that a person’s position on this has a lot to do with their maturity, their level of introspection, and patience.
Because look at how it works:
But it’s complicated. Really complicated.
Then simple…but not the same simple as before.
(Hegel called this thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.)
Essentially to end up at a place of wisdom and understanding, the mind has to hold all of these contradictory ideas in succession. That’s almost the opposite of what we’re wired to do.
So that’s the question: where do you want to fall on this spectrum? Do you have what it takes to push through?
On the one end, we can be naive and accepting. Like the fourth grader learning about the Civil War from people they trust are smarter or just know about these things by virtue of their being older or in positions of authority. And in many cases, we’ll find that this is right enough.
Or we can be invigorated with questions or hypotheticals or impassioned arguments. This is well and good, at least for a time, unless it’s a mask for cynicism and fear. I’m a huge fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates but I have an inkling that his infamous “blue period” is partly this–it’s embracing the complexity and contradictions of history without that hope of coming out the other side. And for him, the other side is the realization that, unfortunately, people have always done horrible things to each other. And that this doesn’t necessarily undermine the goodness inside us either.
We can flinch in the face of that, or we can push through. We can find answers to the questions and resolve the impassioned arguments. We can push through the complexity and navigate the contradictions until we reach some greater understanding.
But the pushing is not fun. Let me tell you.
In my own life, right now, I’m looking at the collapse of a few important relationships. The funny thing is people I know–and indeed, anyone following the news or their public personalities–wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this has finally happened. But the reality is that it is both not nearly that simple and exactly as simple as that. In fact, it was a long revealing process from there to here, one not without irony, in which it became clear that these people had problems…just not in the way I’d have thought. Definitely not in the way that I was warned.
Now trust me, I wish to God that I could have trusted first impressions enough to predict all this. But at the same time, I absolutely don’t, since my life would have turned out very differently without that journey.
Sometimes you have to be dumb enough to be wrong. Really wrong. Because that’s ultimately how you turn out to be right.
BUT, the problem is you can get stuck there in the middle. A lot of people do. I almost did. It ate up immense resources inside me and nearly ruined other, more important relationships in my life. I was stunted, stuck.
The difference between the beginning and the end is not just the understanding but the hundreds of hours of learning that got you there. That validated it. That allowed you to confidently believe and express what you know–because it’s real, not because someone told it to you.
The role of a thinker and a seeker–I won’t say intellectual–is to push through steps one and two to get to three. With the first, you’re right for the wrong reasons. With the second, you’re wrong for the right reasons. And only finally after pushing through the temptation to simplify and past the desire to throw up your hands and write things off do you arrive at the semblance of understanding, of truth or wisdom.
There are so many people who seem smart but they are really just somewhere on this spectrum. They’ve gone with their gut and gotten it right accidentally. They’ve stuck with first impressions and like a clock, fell upon the time. There’s a famous anecdote about a meeting between Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers) and Henry Kissinger where Kissinger was brought in on some foreign policy matter. He said, Henry, look in a few minutes you’ll suddenly be given access to a whole bunch of information you never knew before or were allowed to see. It’s going to be exhilarating at first, empowering even. But then you’ll get jaded and suspicious. Then over time, you’re going to start to forget that you have access to information that nobody else has–and if you aren’t careful, you’re going to lose touch with reality itself.
His point was this: you have to be aware of how the information and the access shapes you. You have to be able to step back and see how these forces are acting on your perceptions and your relations to the world around you.
Otherwise, you’re the idiot who thinks the idea that popped into their head two seconds ago must be genius. Or worse, you think that because you read a couple books or took a few classes or saw a therapist, you’ve got it all figured out. And finally, if you’ve achieved some level of real knowledge, you have to understand that not everyone has been through what you’ve been through. You need to be empathetic and understand where they might be coming from too.
This process is isolating, no question. It forces you to abandon things you thought you knew before–parts of your identity even. It breaks apart relationships and invalidates life choices and assumptions about the world.
It’s painful. It’s hard.
And it seems pointless sometimes because where does it get you? Often right back to where you started as a child, right back to common sense or first impressions.
But nobody said that wisdom and understanding were easy. In fact, that’s kinda the whole reason they’re worth pursuing. And why so few do.