On the Discomfort of Thought

“Too often, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought” – John F. Kennedy.

JFK made the above comment during a 1962 commencement speech to the graduating class at Yale. The point he was trying to make is that fitting in and having friends is easier to do when everyone shares the same opinions. When someone agrees with your point of view, it feels good. One tends to like people who agree with them more than people who disagree. Disagreement isn’t bad, but it’s difficult to make someone feel good and disagree with them at the same time. Thus, holding a different opinion can lead to discomfort.

There is another point hidden in JFK’s quote, though. Thinking is uncomfortable. Why should it be uncomfortable to think? All we have to do is focus our internal dialogue on a topic for enough time to see all the angles debate the possibilities, and land on an opinion. The world we’re in exposes us to an endless number of topics, though. A scroll through any feed will yield dozens of disparate posts from dozens of people, all of whom have their own context that creates more information to digest. The effort it takes to stay focused on the same topic has sky rocketed with the addition of limitless distraction. Sitting still and holding onto the same topic has become uncomfortable.

The amount of new content published online every day has exploded over the last decade. Our exposure to it has increased significantly as well. We have access to everything from Memelon Musk, to conspiracy theories touted as news, to niche Youtubers. The stimulus we get scrolling through a feed has the ability to change what we are thinking about in less that one second. We can’t even type a four sentence email without a notification bell moving our attention to another topic. Thinking has become uncomfortable because there is so much going on. We can’t stay caught up with every current event and form real opinions. Pair this with our need to fit in and have strong social connections, though, and we get what JFK spoke about nearly 70 years ago.

We can address this by going deep on a single topic to form personal, nuanced points of view. That will shed some light on what it takes to form a nuanced perspective. Then, practice being comfortable with the discomfort of someone disagreeing.

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