I recently heard a comedian say, “Everyone has an opinion on everything these days.” He continued, “When I was young, it wasn’t that way. People had maybe six opinions. Sometimes you’d meet a guy with, like, eight opinions, and you’d think, ‘Man that guy’s opinionated.’ But on average people had about six opinions. And most of them were about food.”
I’m not sure people are more opinionated nowadays, but we definitely have more, and larger, platforms on which to share them. Having opinions is natural, but repeatedly sharing them tends to reinforce our assumptions and deepens the rut of our current thought patterns. We become more and more convinced our opinions are facts, incontrovertible truths, especially when others agree with us, or when people we’ve labelled as clueless fools or the scourge of humanity disagree with us.
I’m trying to develop a habit of asking questions instead of sharing my opinions. I’m not talking about trick questions or “gotcha” questions that are intended to prove a point or make someone else look wrong, ignorant or villainous. There are times and occasions for such questions, I suppose but, more often than not, they’re not helpful. Honest questions, on the other hand, that reflect a sincere desire to understand something or someone better, create space for meaningful connection and authentic dialogue. They create space to learn and grow.
If someone shares an opinion I disagree with, or one I don’t understand, my default response is, “Say more.” People rarely refuse my invitation to talk more about their opinions.
Sometimes as they keep talking, they start evaluating their own opinions more thoughtfully. Sometimes they become “preachy,” so I ask them more specific questions, to try to understand why they think that way or why they think others need to hear their opinions. Ultimately, I’m interested in getting to know and understand the person, more than their opinions. People fascinate me. People’s opinions, not as much.
I’m trying to be more humble, inquisitive, curious and creative. For example, if I’m in a conversation about trees, my curiosity makes me wonder what else there is to know about trees. Humility helps me accept I don’t know everything about trees and stay open to others’ knowledge and experiences. Being inquisitive compels me to actively investigate and ask thoughtful questions. Creativity allows me to imaginatively contemplate trees from other angles and perspectives, or with a different lens. To observe them poetically, metaphorically and philosophically, for example, as well as pragmatically and scientifically.
Humility, inquisitiveness, curiosity and creativity open us up to the flow of insight and inspiration. They help us learn, expand, and see with new eyes. They strengthen our child-like wonder and make the world and other people more mysterious and interesting.
One of my mentors told me that truth is like water. It is fluid. It flows into us and nourishes us. Like water, truth has substance, but it is malleable and changes shape in different contexts. We need to be open, but we can be so “open minded” the notion of truth evaporates. In its gaseous state, truth dissipates and disappears from our lives.
The other extreme is to filter the flow of truth through our fixed opinions. Our opinions are like ice, solidified understandings and assumptions. They are no longer malleable to fit changing contexts. Our opinions can pile up and become a dam, a wall of ice, preventing the flow of truth into our lives.
I like this analogy. As a result, I’ve tried to hold my understanding of truth lightly. Not to the point that it evaporates and has no substance, but loosely enough that it doesn’t solidify and inhibit the fluid flow of truth into my life.
It’s not that I don’t have opinions. Of course I do. I write a monthly opinion piece in Canadian Mennonite after all. However, I’m selective on what opinions I share and who I share them with. I’m learning to “stay in my lane.”
To stay in your lane means refraining from sharing opinions on subjects of which you have insufficient knowledge or capacity to speak competently. Reading a few blogs, articles or books on a subject doesn’t make us qualified to speak authoritatively about it. I exchange opinions with some trusted friends, but that’s about it. In most settings, I’d rather ask questions, because I value learning and growing over trying to prove I’m right.
Troy Watson is a pastor at Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont., firstname.lastname@example.org.