As I look back at my “blundering youth”, it’s clear that my propensity to debate, correct and contradict has me mortified. (Pretty specific, right?) I’m sure I know why I am “the way I am”. In my house, everything seemed to be up for debate. It never felt disrespectful or ill intentioned. It’s just the way we communicated, and I’m grateful for it. Not to sound duplicitous, but what has plagued me over the years also taught me to question things in my life, right down to authority figures I’ve encountered. It served me well.
This confidence was/is one of the my best traits. I quickly learned that the “rule makers”, those dressed up in temporary authority, were no different than you and me. After all, they were the ones who made the rules. They are no more intelligent or thoughtful than you and me.
The problems tended to come when I took it too far. For effect, this is how it sounds when it’s gone too far:
“This is BS. I can’t believe people are listening to this jackass! I’ll make my own damn rules. And dollars to donuts says they’ll be better than the close minded and obstinate dullard leaders force feeding their version of the gospel.”
Does this sound familiar to you? The above sentiment is a concrete example of how a valuable personal trait can quickly turn harmful and eventually cause embarrassment. And it did for me more times than I care to mention. But, alas, I’m not alone. I’ve learned it also happens to even the best among us. Turns out we were all young once.
In the classic American autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin tells how he defeated his unfortunate habit of argument and “transformed himself into one of the most able, suave and diplomatic men in American history.”
One day, when Ben Franklin was a blundering youth, an old Quaker friend took him aside and lashed him with a few stinging truths, something like this: Ben, you are impossible. Your opinions have a slap in them for everyone who differs with you. They have become so offensive that nobody cares for them. Your friends find they enjoy themselves better when you are not around. You know so much that no man can tell you anything. Indeed, no man is going to try, for the effort would lead only to discomfort and hard work. So you are not likely ever to know any more than you do now, which is very little.
Whoa. That’s pretty sobering. So what did Franklin do? …He did what you might expect someone like Ben Franklin to do.
“I made it a rule,” said Franklin, “to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiment of others, and all positive assertion of my own, I even forbade myself the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as ‘certainly,’ ‘undoubtedly,’ etc., and I adopted, instead of them, ‘I conceive,’ ‘I apprehend, ‘ or ‘I imagine’ a thing to be so or so, or ‘it so appears to me at present.’ When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition: and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d tome some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevaile’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right. “And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me.”
I can’t say I have this licked. But for me, and for adults generally, learning and maturation happens through quiet, thoughtful reflection. The great Ben Franklin has definitely given me something to reflect on.