February 14th, 2013

Everyday, the members of the John Carroll community receive Speedbumps emails, “offering a chance to slow down, reflect and proceed.” The marked words of religious, philosophical, literary and business figures offer advice and insight on spirituality, vocation and all components of life. These words can be insightful, inspirational and comforting, and all are meant to help guide us along the paths of our lives.

Though hundreds of Speedbumps have been sent, most of them express similar messages, making it appear that a satisfying life follows from universal truths. Through repeated exposure to these truths, credibly based in the significance of the composer’s significance, one would hope the advice would take hold and make a difference in the readers’ lives. However, continuing along the same systemic path, which society has been following for hundreds of years and from which the common human seldom deviates, puzzlingly contradicts the hopeful goals of spreading important wisdom.

There is a saying that goes, “You can’t win an argument with an ignorant man.” The truth is we are all ignorant: ignorant of our own ignorance. No matter how revelatory any argument or motivational saying is, a person cannot change another person.

People who were racist in the 1950s and 1960s are probably still racist today, no matter how convincing their grandchildren’s arguments for acceptance are. Though we are constantly reminded that there is more to life than money, we continue to pursue it despite the displeasure that constant quest brings. Innumerable quotes tell us what values to have and to pursue our dreams to become who we are designed to be. How soon after realizing the importance of those values are our minds empty of them? Is anyone’s childhood dream to ruthlessly pursue scholastic perfection for at least 16 years while denying themselves sustaining, simple pleasures to chase grandiose, fabricated ones? How many times must the insightful wisdom be argued for before people change their minds?

Though I haven’t done the precise math, my estimates say that a large number of the Speedbumps tell us to do many of the things which we refuse to do; we already believe the current structure exists to make us happy and comfortable. Some may even believe the system adheres to quotable values and wisdom.

My commentary shouldn’t be misunderstood. Strongly adhering to a set of values is a very good thing. Yet, we must adhere to the right things. Determining the what the right things are is a subjective process. On an individual basis, many things are inconsequential. But there are things which are important and for which we should fight.

When it comes down to it, our efforts to persuade people to believe certain things are futile. Choosing to believe an argument contrary to one’s beliefs is conceding to incorrectness, and people do not like to feel like they are wrong.  People will believe what they want; there is absolutely nothing that can be done about this, no matter how wrong their beliefs seem to be. If a person changes it is only because they chose to change. Accepting this reality can help us to bring about change despite the problems human fallibility and the ego bring to the table.

To cause change, the best we can do is present relatable information to individuals. The reasoning process must happen within a person. Just like the Speedbumps try to help guide people to and along a successful path, the things about which we are passionate can be realized by others with the help of our guidance. Through the presentation of evidence, a person must be made to realize that a problem relates to and affects them. Surely, they must be called out subtly to make them realize they are in violation of something very important, but they mustn’t feel attacked; engaging the defensive only sets a cause further back.

Many believe that what sets humans apart is our ability to reason. But, what seems to dominate that ability are the emotions which can paralyze our logic. The trick is to engage emotions which aid our cause. To fight for something, we must not fight something else. We must work with something to change it. All of those Speedbumps are pointless if it is not realized how they apply specifically to an individual and their situation.

T.S. Eliot wrote, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” While our demise might, indeed be us being crushed to an insignificant fragment of what we once were, it is possible that new beginnings can also come about in this way. Starting with a gentle whimper inside the opposition can bring about a bang of change on the outside.