Thinking Is Hard

Every so often I threaten to nestle a trash can close beside our mailbox so that most of what arrives there (courtesy of Rural Free Delivery) can hit the recycling bin at the Warren Transfer Station without ever having to come up the hill into our house. Then, there are days when it feels as if the main purpose of e-mail is the exercise of deleting most of it. Throw in social media messages, the podcasts I listen to, and the books on my nightstand, and, like you, I am standing in the drenching spray of what Alan Jacobs refers to as an “informational fire hose.” No wonder we sometimes struggle to think clearly and well.

In How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Jacobs initiates a conversation about what it means to think well, and he begins with an astute definition:

“Thinking is . . . what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help.” (14)

With the fire hose always on, our minds cope by engaging in snap judgments, often without conscious reflection. Jacobs diagnoses the prevailing orientation as “a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (21) Almost a century ago, T.S. Eliot concluded that “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotion for thoughts.”

If you are looking for step-by-step instructions on how to be a better thinker (as the title might imply),  this is not that book. Thinking is an art, but while art may be resistant to strict rules, there are good practices to follow and harmful habits to be avoided. Alan Jacobs offers surprising insights for getting our minds back again:

Don’t Think for Yourself

While we tend to attribute great thinking to independence, the truth is more likely that people with whom we agree and whose thinking we admire are thinking with other people who also think well. We recognize this more readily with those who reject our views, citing bad influences. Since thinking is such a social activity, it’s important that our interactions with other human beings lead us toward what is ultimately true and good.

How to Think draws on C.S. Lewis’s observations about “The Inner Ring” to differentiate between good and healthy memberships that lead to excellent thinking and collectives that may “make a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” (56) In fact, “The Inner Ring” (an unhealthy membership) discourages thinking and excludes those who question the group-think.  Lewis cites the camaraderie among characters in The Wind in the Willows as an example of healthy interaction that leads to good thinking: “Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad . . . are all so different from one another, made of such dramatically varying stuff, yet taken together they are far greater than the sum of their parts. Each requires the others to be complete. . . Each is accepted for his own distinctive contribution to the group.” (61)

Thinking Is Not Strictly Rational

We’re not called upon to suppress all feeling in order to think well. English philosopher John Stuart Mill argues that pure analysis is insufficient without joining both thought and feeling, particularly if the thinker is responding out of a healthy place that perceives the world as it truly is. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio concluded that individuals with inadequate emotional responses to a situation were also likely to be “seriously compromised” in their ability to make decisions. (84)

Practice Wisdom in Your Repugnance

It’s common to assign labels to people who hold views that repel us:  Monster! Hater! Liberal! Raging Fundamentalist! This is not a helpful practice, and tends to shut down our thinking. Jacobs’s counsel when faced with repugnant ideas is to “seek out the best–the smartest, most sensible, most fair-minded–representatives of the positions you disagree with. If your first thought on reading that sentence is that smart, sensible, and fair-minded people are extremely rare among your opponents, I would ask you to reflect on whether you think they are any more common among those who agree with you.”

It turns out that James’ biblical admission that we all “stumble in many ways” is a helpful mindset in dealing with disagreements. Being wrong is not a pathological condition.

Clear thinking is the best way to avoid harmful prejudices.

English essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances . . .” (86) His point is that we can’t analyze rationally every single act or thought. Therefore, it is crucial that we “distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.” (87) Of course, this only underscores the importance of learning to think with the best people and to avoid adopting the thoughts of unhealthy thinkers.

Beware the Overly Open Mind

After numerous arguments with H.G. Wells (and others), G.K. Chesterton quipped that the object of opening the mind is not simply to open the mind, but is rather like opening the mouth: the object “is to shut it again on something solid.” (126) It’s far better to remain unsettled on an issue than to snap the mind shut on a conviction that is convenient and popular–but false.

It’s easy to get lazy in dealing with the information fire hose. Jacob’s admits, to my great relief:  “Thinking is hard.” (128) But thinking is also hopeful, and the alternative to conscientious mental effort is to be “blown about” as Paul described it, subject to whatever wind of thought passes through. Making the commitment to cognitive courage may be hard work, but the choice to persevere in becoming a better thinker is an act of hope that, in the long run as well as  in the process, will produce a better disciple.

This book was provided by Currency, a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC, via Blogging for Books in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

I  am participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to If you should decide to purchase How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, simply click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

How to Think
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The Problem of Belonging: Jayber Crow Discussion Group (6)

When it comes to friendship, to a confidence of our place and belonging to a group, all of us have at least one toe in Middle School. The sense of being outside looking in is ubiquitous enough that it has its own acronym (FOMO). In a speech delivered to a young adult audience in 1944, C.S. Lewis referred to it as the quest for “the inner ring,” and had this to say about it:

 ” I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

“Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

“Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”

Whether by fear or by conscious choice, Jayber, the bachelor barber of Port William, Kentucky, describes himself at several points as an outsider, even after he has cemented his place in the social structure as gravedigger and caretaker for the local church. He takes his position very seriously — in spite of his claim to be “by nature a lazy person” (159) — wearing the mantle of responsibility like a vocation.

Ever a contradiction, Jayber confesses to a feeling of being “outside even when inside,” while, at the same time, claiming to be possessed by a deep love for The Membership and describes poignantly how this love became clear to him through a dream he had while napping in a back pew:

“I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew, where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any farther) . . . I saw them all. I saw the creases crisscrossed on the backs of the men’s necks, their work-thickened hands, the Sunday dresses faded with washing. They were just there . . . [and] I seemed to love them all with a love that was mine merely because it included me.

“When I came to myself again, my face was wet with tears.” (165)

The Professionally Devout

With his theological bent toward universalism (161), Jayber’s issue may have been doctrinal as well as social, but it is his position as an “outsider” in the church that make his observations so valuable — in my opinion. Like most small churches, the Port William assembly had endured a succession of young and inexperienced clergymen who are looking for the next step in their resume development. I feel sorry for any pastor who has to face a congregation who “prefer(s) to hear what it has heard before.” However, with a glass-half-full mentality, Jayber finds the good even in a bad sermon being preached from “the mantle of power, but not the mantle of knowledge.”

“In general, I weathered even the worst sermons pretty well. They had the great virtue of causing my mind to wander. Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons.”

The same thing happened to C.S. Lewis during a boring sermon one Sunday morning at Holy Trinity Church in Headington, and the idea for his book, The Screwtape Letters was born from the imaginative overflow.

Jayber notes, once again, the insistence of the faithful in splitting the world into “sacred” and “secular” categories, a “religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world.”  He seems to be most astonished by it here in this land of “good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs.” Living close to the land breeds a love for the particular which seems to be expunged by walking into the nave.

As much as Jayber manages to miss, theologically, his thoughts on death and resurrection are thought-provoking:

“. . . I am mystified as anybody by the transformation known as death, and the Resurrection is more real to me than most things I have not seen.”

The Port William Zephyr

Taking possession of an old green Dodge sedan, Jayber enters into an uneasy relationship with progress. He enjoys the freedom of traveling to Hargrave for dancing, drinks, and carrying on with Clydie. However, examining his response to the freedom that comes with speed, he was abashed to find himself succumbing to the same impatience he despised in Troy Chatham:

“Ease of going was translated without pause into a principled unwillingness to stop.”

Jayber’s love for Mattie and his resentment of Troy’s role in her life gets interspersed with Jayber’s ponderings on farming, land management, and the effects of “progress” on farming, all learned from his ties to Athey, but clearly conveying William Berry’s thoughts and voice on the topics.

What Do You Think?

Was anyone else puzzled by the figure of speech describing Uncle Stanley Gibbs?

“[He] had no more sense of privacy than a fruit jar.”

Looking at my abundant canning jars, all clear glass, I’m concluding that he meant a fruit jar would not afford much privacy as a dwelling.

Back to Jayber’s on-the-job thoughts on the dead: 

“The people [in the graves] had lived their little passage of time in this world, had become what they became, and now could be changed only by forgiveness and mercy.”

Rendered changeless by death, the people who live in our memories still, in some odd way, require our mercy, our forgiveness, for while it cannot, ultimately, change who they were or who they allowed themselves to become, it most certainly will change me. This is particularly true if I can join Jayber in the wanting for a “heart as big as Heaven.”

May we find that we, too, are “moved by a compassion that seem[s] to come to [us] from outside.” Could this be one of the benefits of reading good fiction? 


I found these three chapters to be the most difficult to write about so far because they cover so much territory. If I left out the theme that stood out to you, or if you feel that I missed the point entirely, be sure to let me know in the comments.

And, as usual and customary, you are welcome to share blog posts (or comments) with your insights on all things Jayber or Port William.

It appears that we have already crossed the half-way point, so thanks for hanging in there!

Here’s the schedule for upcoming discussion posts:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32


If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.