Towards a kinder, friendlier skepticism in 2010

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Besides proofing my Twitter posts for errors and potentially misconstrued verb use before updating, I’ve resolved to improve my communication and skeptical relation skills for 2010. I’m well on my way. I don’t really need people to tell me what to improve on since my self-critical conscience screams at me after a bad experience and lingers much longer nagging me never to do that sort of thing again.

It takes practice, I guess. One must start somewhere; recognizing some aspects to work on is the place to start. Here are my objectives:

1.      Withhold judgment.
My typical reaction to talk about an irrational subject is not always pleasant. I take short cuts. I feel the anger or frustration immediately and react with the fewest, strongest words appropriate to the situation. (“That’s nonsense!”)  So, my goal is to be nicer, not to react as usual. I can’t stop the feelings but I can chose not to act on them. A good first step, personally, is not to talk as much; simply resist the need to comment on everything. This leads to my next objective…

2.      Ask questions.
In everyday situations, I have a bad habit of filling in the gaps on my own. There are many good reasons why I shouldn’t assume I understand the whole story. When I assume, then I end up taking the short cuts in item 1 and I can come off as harsh. I need to work on the softer sell – to get people interested by reflected on what THEY are thinking rather than me hitting with a metaphorical big stick. Good questions would be “What do you know about “X”? “How did you find out about it?” “Do you think it sounds like a good idea? Why?” [I'm not snarky so don't read the questions that way.]

3.      Look deeper.
Because I’m always pressed for time and have so much to remember and think about every day, I take those short cuts that result in a quick and potentially harsh reaction that puts people off.

I tend to see broad brush things and skip over important details. By nature, I’m a lumper, not a splitter. When people split a concept into a zillion pieces heading off in all directions, I feel frustrated. I want to keep returning to the central idea, stay on track, and deal with the overarching topic, not minutia. I risk missing the nuances and important bits lurking in the details.

This one is tough. It’s too easy to scan through the hundreds of emails, tweets, text messages, news articles, blog posts, etc. and quickly extract the major concepts. One could argue this the usual pace of American life, rapidly, shallowly sifting through the fire hose of information and extracting just the exciting parts. Perhaps that’s why we misunderstand (and neglect) other cultures, world politics, complicated natural processes and our personal relationships with others.

By the end of the day, my brain is so full of noise and useless details, I can’t absorb any new knowledge by choice from books or reading my favorite blogs, etc. I’m still affected by events earlier in the day. What I could use is a brain clean up technique – to reduce the clutter, sweep away the rubbish. I’ve found yoga exercises to be helpful – I’m concentrating simply on my breathing and balance and everything else in my head is blocked from my attention, so those distracting, noisy thoughts drift away. Then, I can think clearer about complicated things.

As in objective 2, skipping over the details causes me to assume more than I should. I certainly need to slow down, think and dissect the story, the claims, the information presented even if it means splitting the concepts into their multiple parts. The world is not simple. It’s messy. I need to learn to deal with the mess in a constructive way.

4.      Don’t take it personally.
I’m probably not going to agree with most people on irrational topic. But, it’s not the people I’m really disagreeing with (or they with me), it’s the ideas we’re disputing. I’ve watched some incredible, deliberate, mean attacks take place on people around me this year. I’ve learned from their reactions. They remained detached and (outwardly, at least) unfazed, smiling, professional! Impressed, I took note. This one will take extra practice.

All of the above objectives are related to the concept of mindfulness. (How to Bring Mindfulness)

Practicing mindfulness means I ought to just pay attention without trying to jump in and change something right away. It can bring awareness and a new focus, an ability to let things just drift away without feeling the need to act. That would keep me out of a lot of trouble.

I’m planning to make more frequent visits to a quiet corner of the university library to have some introspective moments and practice concentration. I think I’ll even write down my objectives as reminders to myself and stick them onto my PC at work and home. My big goal is that, by attempting to fulfill my 4 objectives, practicing mindfulness and reducing brain clutter, 2010 will be less stressful and more enlightening. And, I will become a more pleasant person overall.

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4 thoughts on “Towards a kinder, friendlier skepticism in 2010

  1. Great post.

    I have been thinking a lot about my approach toward skepticism and atheism (and other forms of non-theism) and want to work on a ‘softer’ more thoughtful approach.

    I’ve been slowly reading on ‘The Religious Case Against Belief’ by James P. Carse, which (so far at least) is making a very useful distinction between the religion and belief (I haven’t gotten to the argument of the case itself yet). Carse is a very intelligent philosopher for whom I have a lot of respect from reading his other work, so I’m very much looking forward to finishing this book.

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