What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It’s Not Just Intelligence)

In day-to-day life, the quality of your thinking depends so much on character. The company you keep is also important.

It’s not that intelligence doesn’t play a role. It’s just insufficient by itself. People who are mentally quick don’t necessarily think with depth, either generally or in response to certain topics. There’s no guarantee they’ll ever investigate their own opinions or question their own assumptions with any seriousness.

They can use their mental agility to dodge or immediately deflect any ideas or substantive pieces of evidence that don’t fit with their view of “how things are.” (Sometimes, these kinds of deflections help people get through the day without getting bogged down; it’s impossible to spend every moment re-evaluating what you think. But there are situations where deflections and dodges are harmful, shutting down an important line of inquiry or preventing a discussion about a proposed law. The quality and timing of these deflections, and the reasons behind them, are affected by your character – what you value, for instance, and your integrity.)

They may be clever at crafting rationalizations or arguments that seem well-structured. They may feel no need to examine whether they’re behaving with integrity; it’s enough that other “right-minded” people are expressing the same thoughts. They may prioritize “owning” someone in an argument over learning anything. Or they use their intelligence mostly for snark and viciousness.

An intelligent mind can still be a lazy mind. It can still be a narrow mind or a mind given to exceptional dishonesty. (Context matters too. An individual can display in-depth thinking in one area of life while remaining superficial or dishonest in other areas – and either not recognizing the superficiality or not being troubled by it, because it doesn’t cost them social approval.)

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Rediscovering What I Value

While cleaning my desk, I found a notebook from a few years ago where I’d listed 10 qualities or human capabilities I admire.

They came from a site that displays dozens of these words and asks you to pick a smaller subset that represents what you value most. (Something like that – I don’t remember the site or the specific instructions.)

It’s interesting to consider what I chose as most reflective of my values.

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“You only know what you know ’til you know…”

YouTube recommendations sometimes are wonderful. I go on YouTube mostly for music, and this song by Mozella (an artist I was unfamiliar with), hit me with its lyrics, which have some good insights about change and development.

“You only know what you know ‘til you know.”

People, myself included, sometimes wish so badly that they could know everything they need to know at the outset of some great venture or new stage in life – to have the knowledge, complete and whole, at their command, to keep them from missteps, embarrassing mistakes, and painfully wrongheaded decisions.

But there’s no such complete knowledge. At any given point, you know what you know, that’s it. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a mentor or another trusted person to guide you, you still have to live out the process of learning for yourself, and one way or another, you won’t always get things right. The key is to keep learning, to grow in wisdom.

“So many things mattered to you that really meant nothing but you needed them to find the truth.”

Yes, some of the things that once interested you may seem unimportant now, but they’re still a part of you. They helped you become who you are now. You’ve still learned something from them.

“You can’t sleep it off or drink it away, trick it with frivolities, fortune, or fame.”

There’s a temptation to ignore pain, which is a symptom of an underlying difficulty, something in you that needs to be addressed. The strategies for avoidance and denial are varied and often involve an addiction or compulsion of some kind; maybe you drink frequently or spend hours on mindless Internet browsing. But the problems don’t go away. The call for change and growth persists, even when it goes unanswered. How long can you avoid change or pretend that everything can stay the way it is?

James Hollis on Lethargy and Fear

In Living an Examined Life, James Hollis writes the following:

“Life’s two biggest threats we carry within: fear and lethargy… Those perverse twins munch on our souls every day. No matter what we do today, they will turn up again tomorrow. Over time, they usurp more days of our lives than those to which we may lay fair claim.”

Those words (from Chapter 2: It’s Time to Grow Up) struck me forcefully. I recognize this struggle in myself, and it’s also in the forefront of my mind now because I recently observed Yom Kippur – a day of fasting and atonement, and also reflection on my actions and what I’d like to change (and how I’d like to make those changes).

The effects of fear and lethargy often emerge in different kinds of avoidance. Avoiding specific efforts, backing down in various ways, complying without true conviction, disengaging from meaningful activities and turning to repetitive, numbing behaviors, or seeking what Hollis describes as “fundamentalist forms of thinking that finesse subtlety, fuzz opposites, seek simplistic solutions to complex issues, and still our spirit’s distress with the palliative balm of certainty.”

I also think lethargy can be born of fear. What looks superficially like laziness (like the choice to watch hours of TV) is sometimes a way of procrastinating because you’re afraid of what will happen if you act. It’s a way of hiding, remaining unnoticeable and as such more impervious to attack and less likely to suffer the disappointment of failure. (Though you may later suffer the regret that you didn’t act.)

Obviously some fears are warranted and need to be managed reasonably. And it’s ok to relax too. If you’ve worked hard, made various efforts during the day, you can take a break. The danger is when fear and lethargy begin to dominate you. I need to watch out for this myself – to pay attention to behaviors that are mere distractions from what’s important or avoidance techniques in response to things I need to face.

Healthy Anger as Part of Healing from Emotional Abuse

A while ago I wrote a post called “If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship…” It describes many aspects of emotional abuse and what victims typically experience.

Reading it again, I realize that I wrapped up the post in a somewhat tentative way. I wrote how one of the first steps towards healing is to understand the abuse and its dynamics – to maintain distance and recognize what’s going on. And that’s true. You need to do that to experience some healing. But of course it isn’t enough.

What else can you do? What’s a key part of the process of finding yourself again, waking up, and gaining strength?

Healthy Anger

Anger is a natural reaction to abuse. However, when you’re living in the midst of abuse, your anger may have no healthy outlet.

For example, a child in a dysfunctional home often gets punished for showing normal emotions, including anger. What happens then? The anger turns inward. It rips into the psyche and digs into the body. It helps create depression and self-loathing, and possibly gastrointestinal complaints and other health problems.

The anger may leap outwards at various targets. The victim may also take up addictive behaviors, like drinking or eating too much, to help cope with these overpowering but buried feelings.

Often, victims of abuse aren’t aware of just how angry they are. They don’t always connect their ravaged psyche or destructive behaviors with their suppressed emotions.

That’s why expressing anger is such a critical part of healing. When you’re healing from abuse, you need to let out the anger and understand it.

Letting out anger doesn’t mean destroying other people or harming yourself. The anger may come out in sessions with a therapist, hopefully a space that’s safe for you. It may involve screaming in a room. While remaining in the present, you might confront the past, naming the abuse out loud and explicitly placing the responsibility for it on the perpetrator. It can mean just letting yourself feel the anger – knowing what it is and where it comes from and riding it out as it pours out of you. Maybe you can find additional outlets for it in vigorous exercise or artistic expression.

I don’t think our culture deals with anger in a healthy way (where I live, in the U.S.). More often, what I see is a pressure on abuse victims to quickly forgive. In the name of being virtuous, in the name of “moving on,” victims are urged to resolve everything with speed and minimal fuss and then act as if it never happened. But that isn’t how people heal. You can’t force people to forgive their abusers. If forgiveness comes, it must be natural. (I also don’t think forgiveness will look the same for different situations and offenses.)

People are afraid even of healthy anger, because it isn’t tidy and neat. It doesn’t lead to simple resolutions and to problems getting swept away and blissfully ignored. Even as it heals you, it’s harrowing. It’s painful and potentially overwhelming. It doesn’t come out all at once. Maybe it never fully leaves you. But it can be put to good use. It can motivate you, remind you of your mental, spiritual, and emotional needs, and help you assert your boundaries and defend your dignity.

As a victim of emotional abuse, you may never have learned to understand, feel, or express anger in a healthy way. In recognizing it and finding a way to express it that doesn’t destroy yourself or others, you may find yourself experiencing other effects: less guilt and self-loathing, a more vivid inner life, a painful but necessary awakening, a need to change the way you live. It can generate an urge to locate yourself when you think the abuse has weakened or demolished you. You’re finding yourself in the rubble and pushing your way out.

RIP Marion Woodman

I first learned about her through this interview, where her thoughts on addiction and perfectionism struck me:

“They are never where they are; they are always running, or dreaming about the wonderful past, or the wonderful future. So they are never in the body. The body lives in the present. The body exists right now. But an addict is not in the body, so the body suffers. Uninhabited. And there’s where that terrible sense of starvation comes from.”

Recently I started reading one of her books, The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation, and it’s a summons to fight stagnation:

“People splayed in a perpetual chrysalis… are in trouble. Stuck in a state of stasis, they clutch their childhood toys, divorce themselves from the reality of their present circumstances, and sit hoping for some magic that will release them from their pain into a world that is ‘just and good,’ a make-believe world of childhood innocence. Fearful of getting out of relationships that are stultifying their growth, fearful of confronting parents, partners or children who are maintaining infantile attitudes, they sink into chronic illness and/or psychic death. Life becomes a network of illusions and lies. Rather than take responsibility for what is happening, rather than accept the challenge of growth, they cling to the rigid framework that they have constructed or that has been assigned to them from birth. They attempt to stay ‘fixed.’ Such an attitude is against life, for change is a law of life.”

I wanted to share this passage in part because that last line is a necessary reminder to not resist the inevitable changes and to not avoid the changes that could help me grow.

Is This Really Love?

If someone gives you the message that they’ll love you only if you’re less capable, kind, intelligent, or courageous than you really are (or can be), what they love is a diminished version of you.

Maybe they don’t love you at all, or maybe their capacity to love is damaged by personal problems, such as a profound insecurity.

When people love each other, they feed each other’s strength. A person who loves you doesn’t try to make you weak and miserable.