This post may seem strange to many readers, especially the younger crowd. (Well, you say, aren’t they all strange?) But I’ll press on. Hang in there with me for just a bit.

I had all the answers in my twenties. I was quite sure of many things, and I didn’t mind saying so. I made a lot of statements about what often seemed to me were dubious claims–or dubious ways of reasoning–on the part of other people, and was not as prone to ask questions to delve deeper into what I really did question. The old Western movie adage comes to mind:

“Shoot first and ask questions later.”

My opinions were happily shared. I felt so confident in them that I was sure they would be helpful to the listener, or to the reader of some of my writings early in my academic career. Resistance on the part of many listeners simply meant that I needed to think of a better way to get my point across. Resistance is a normal thing, and after a while that didn’t bother me much.

As midlife approached, my ways of thinking began to change. Complexities and contradictions became easier to see. This was partly due to an idea that I kept mulling over from something I read about the young lawyer, Abraham LIncoln, who traveled among the prairie towns of Central Illinois to argue cases. He reported years later that in preparing for each case, he spent more time thinking about potential arguments from the opposing side than he devoted to preparing his own arguments. He learned to see things from the point of view of others. This seemed–and still seems–like a useful idea.

Another dimension to my changing way of thinking was the emergence of doubts about some things I had long believed  to be true. I came to question myself, what I had been taught, and whether different or opposing points of view might be as sensible or more sensible than mine. Was I so right all the time? Was there some other way to think about x, y, or z? Travel and exposure to people with backgrounds that were vastly different than my own often gave me pause, and I began to make fewer iron-clad statements. I began to ask more questions.

The writer Ambrose Bierce, who was reported to have disappeared in late 1913 or early 1914 while an observer with Pancho Villa’s army during the Mexican Revolution, wrote:

“Who never doubted, never half believed. Where doubt is, there truth is – it is her shadow.”

I have become comfortable with doubt. It seems now to be foolhardy to be sure of everything, to feel those who disagree with me are wrong or “not with it.” I’ve learned that often they are with it. That their reasoning is sensible. That there are multiple ways to view the same situation.

A few months ago I looked back at some of my early professional writings. Some were controversial. Now I’m not as sure as I was then that I was “right.” For what it’s worth, I still believe I was. (A statement.) But was I “right?” (A question.)

I don’t know. It is liberating to say “I don’t know,” or “I have my doubts.”

I volunteer opinions less often than I did 30-40 years ago. But if you ask my opinion on something, I’ll usually give you one. I’m wired that way. But I’m quite comfortable in this ponderous stage of life. Very comfortable. Too comfortable?

Does that make sense? Don’t we learn more when we listen than when we talk? Don’t we have two ears and one mouth? Statements or questions? Is that the question?

A related post, “Certainty,” followed this one. It follows a similar, but expanded, line of simple thought.

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