By Dr. Donald DeMarco
There are two popular maxims to live by that, taken together, provide not clarity but confusion. The first advises us to “think outside the box.” This bromide appeals to our sense of independence. We are flattered into believing that we are bold and adventurous and will not be confined to a way of life that is prescribed by others. This has proven to be a most effective maxim, but only in achieving widespread acceptance.
The second one is “get with the program.” In this case, the appeal is to our sense of community. We think it is arrogant to believe that we can invent our own program, while rejecting what has already been established with our good in mind. We are reluctant to abandon the time-tested for the unproven. Like the first maxim, it, too, has achieved popularity, but without success.
The first maxim strokes our ego; the second touches our humility. Although each is trendy and popular, they both dispense with thinking while perfectly contradicting each other. They hoodwink us into believing that a mere slogan is more illuminating than thinking. They promise to make life easier for us, but their passport to simplicity is counterfeit.
The thinking person would want to know what is in the box as well as being aware of what makes up the program. Not wanting to know what is in the box or anything about the program is to avoid thinking. As a teacher, I always want my students to know that if they are catching opinions, they may be catching them the way that one catches a cold: They are thrust upon them.
Thinking does not permit excessive shortcuts. It abhors the one-dimensional command. Haste may make waste, but a stitch in time still saves nine. Slogans are handy, but they lack breadth. They are attractive to the mentally indolent. Thinking takes time, something that many people seem to have in scarce supply.
I recall asking a class of 50 students for a description of “peace” that is more positive than “the absence of war.” No one could provide me with anything that went beyond the usual negativity: “the avoidance of hostility,” “the removal of stress,” “the freedom from worry,” and so on. Their peace offerings failed to inform me of what peace is. I suggested that negative definitions are not illuminating. We would not say that a “man” is simply “not a woman” or that “life” is merely “not being dead.”
Mother Teresa was once asked why she did not participate in antiwar demonstrations. She said that “I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”
Finally, in order to make my question more down to earth and less abstract, I asked them what they might do if they wanted to find, sometime within the next week, 10 minutes of peace. Philosophy does have a practical side to it. Silence prevailed for some time, until one student explained, disconsolately, that given her busy schedule, finding 10 minutes to experience peace was, for at least several weeks, completely out of the question.
Poet and essayist Don Marquis, has made the remark that “if you make people think that they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.” Of course, being a teacher is not the same thing as being a demagogue. On the other hand, “really making students think” could adversely affect my student-teacher evaluations.
Nonetheless, Marquis has a point. According to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” Rev. King is wisely distinguishing “solid thinking” from “wishful thinking.” We all wish things were better. But nothing improves when wishes supplant thinking.
A good philosopher is a good example of a good thinker. According to St. Augustine, “Peace is the tranquility of order.” For Benedict Spinoza, “Peace is not the absence of war: It is a virtue born of the strength of the heart.” Alfred North Whitehead referred to peace as “a trust in the efficacy of beauty.”
In these positive explanations of peace we find food for thought: Peace requires an inner disposition that is in harmony with the outer world. It is founded on a “strength of the heart” that trusts the order and beauty of things. Peace is experienced when the virtuous person comes to terms with his life and his surroundings in a mood of tranquility. Thinking about peace is an important step toward experiencing it.
Examples of non-thinking in our present culture abound: Contraception is simply responsible sex, abortion is merely a choice, euthanasia is just death with dignity, same-sex marriage is nothing more than a civil right, while traditional marriage is legalized slavery.
In these examples, thinking is truncated so that automatic responses can prevail. It is precisely because man is a rational animal, however, that he cannot be free unless he is willing to think.
St. Paul is a model for the thinking person. In Phil. 4:8, he makes the following entreaty: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Conn. This commentary appeared in the March 17 edition of The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission.