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Thinking in Detours
“The Gentler View,” Harper’s Weekly (Advertiser; December 31, 1910) : 26 : link
better scan (lower left of page) : link   (Indiana U copy, digitized July 29, 2022)

      Though every man dislikes thinking and feels wronged when compelled to do so, no one can say that we have not reduced it to the terms least inconvenient to our comfort. We think in detours, amd the spaces leaped by our thoughts are of far more interest than the thoughts themselves. It is painfully absorbing to watch a woman talk for minutes, going always straight toward a black hole in the ice. She skims on, and there is apparently nothing to prevent her plunging into cold reality, but just as the ice begins to thin her theory rises in the air and carries her safely up and over, and while we gape open-mouthed she has made her jump with confounding agility, alighted, and is once more proceeding with spirit on her way. It is always ourselves whom we detour around, and the instinct which leads us to do it shows how uncommon is an honest confronting of our uttered opinions with the fount of our confirmed actions.
      We say with a noble flash of the brow, and Spartan scorn of exceptional cases, that we believe absolutely in the right of each person to live his life according to the needs of his nature, and so detached are our spoken opinions from our habitual acts that we speak with fevered conviction, forever safe from seeing the hideous incongruity of such a speech in our mouths, we who for years have been trying to impress our ignorant will on our children, and frustrating their every effort to differ from us. When we arise, spectral figures of denunciation, in our own conversation we magically fail to see ourselves. Onlookers are appalled. It is like seeing a trick done which sets us gasping all the more for having penetrated the illusion of it. It is not possible that a man fresh from a bickering quarrel with his family can say with philosophical gentleness that petty quarrels to him are sickening, uncivilized, and that it is impossible to get angry without burning up something precious in a relationship that can never be rekindled. Surely he will stutter, his thoughts will come home to him as a striking example of the opposite faction, and, realizing that he has no right to such utterances, he will falter and stop. But there lies the marvel. He makes his detour, and by avoiding the honesty of straight thinking he is enabled to continue in his belief and the staunch support of it. For these are his veritable beliefs. It is a great solace to him that he has such enlightened thoughts, and sanctimoniously, smugly, he says in his heart, “I may not be much, but my opinions are irreproachable.”
      What is to be done with such people? Their slipperiness makes them impregnable. You say, “I think, above all, we must be honest with ourselves”; and they, vigorously, on their sincerest note, echo, “Ah, so do I, above all things!” Their blindness to the next step, the question of whether they truly are honest with themselves, paralyzes you, and, fascinated by their powers of evasion, you permit yourself to be led docilely around the stum-bling-block of their hypocrisy and on to those broad spaces of generality where we all show off so well.
      Why, if they really believe the opposite and act on it daily with a set determination which proves their belief in it, do they prefer for public expression opinions so foreign to them? If they would admit that they did or thought any of the things common to them, we would respect them for continuity of thought if for nothing else. They would not then be the uncanny figures they now are. There is a something suggestive of necromancy in their never failing to note and agree with an enlightened idea, in spite of their firm adherence to darkened dungeon acts. How do they know it renders their position invulnerable? How is it that they are so sure to a nicety where to clip their thoughts and where again to take them up so that absolute immunity from elec- tric shock is secured for them?
      It renders one dizzy to hear the words: “I think we do ourselves an irreparable injury when we take criticism badly. We shut ourselves off from all honest helpful relationships.” They get as near themselves as that; they dare such imminent risk of an encounter; then what in the name of all that is incomprehensible in human nature saves them from going that next step which they never do go, that of admitting to themselves that they resent and never forgive a direct criticism?
      The situation would be so simple — though there is something unnatural in even supposing a simple situation — if they were deep-dyed villainous souls who consciously did benighted things and to cover up their tracks, which real villains always know require covering, assumed the recognized virtues. But they are not dreadful people at all. They are all the dear people we know; they are, in fact you who are reading these words and I who am writing them. We believe, above everything, in our own sincerity, and as long as we continue our system of leaping over certain lengths of our logic we will feel justified in claiming ideas as ours in which we have not a whit of honest share.
      And it is not the homely, long emphasized virtues that we ape. That is the baffling part of it. By some curious chance we catch at the ones we are incapable of understanding. We inevitably aspire to the new, freshly evolved ones, those that require radical changes to live up to, the expression of which denotes a big departure and implies a completely new creed conceived in pain and doubt, and brought to fruition at the cost of something else.
      There is sure to be at this point some kindly person thinking in warm loyalty to all good people : “But are we not to have our ideals and be permitted to express them, merely because our acts do not always succeed in exactly imitating them?” Oh, that reprehensible kindly person! I doubt if there is anything in the world as stultifying as such kindness. Ideas are things we have secured for ourselves with difficulty and results. They are what we are constantly trying to act on. Ideals are the things we hope to live by in some future state of development when we have proven ourselves worthy of such an existence by carrying out our present ideas. If an idea is legitimately ours it is so integral a part of us that we express it perpetually, involuntarily. When we protest against the evidences of our ideas in others, and deny them by our every act, then we have no possible excuse for making a verbal claim on them, and the only reason that we can do it with the undisturbed calm which is ours, is because never from the beginning have we been frank in our relation to ourselves.

26 August 2023