On Having Opinions by George Merrill

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I’ve been thinking about opinions, lately. I’ve noticed how time has altered many of my own.

If we have nothing else in life, we have opinions, hundreds if not thousands of them. Sharing our opinions is one of the ways that we affiliate with one another, get fresh perspectives, gain a feeling of the personality we may be dealing with, or just catching up.   Take a dinner party; there will be typically more opinions expressed around the table than there is food on it. If you are unfortunate, you will have been seated next to a person who is opinionated. Such people don’t just have opinions, they have answers. They have answers for questions you’ve never asked or even more for some you’ve never even considered. They never entertain questions of their own that indicate they have any doubts. I’ve found such people possess the remarkable ability to hold court nonstop while showing no physical signs that indicate they have ever taken a breath.

Newspapers and magazines welcome our opinions. They thrive on them. The press sets aside space for readers to text their opinions on just about anything. Opinions are also heard on the air and seen on TV regularly. Politics is particularly popular in opinion pieces. Since politics occupy such a significant place in our common lives, it’s a subject about which almost everyone has an opinion and, I would add, for at least the average citizen like me, marginal knowledge of how it all works.

Of the many blessings of American democracy, one is that we are not expected to actually know anything about the opinions we express, and particularly the issues where politics and religion are concerned. Has not folk wisdom warned us regularly not to discuss religion or politics in polite society? It has always been regarded as perilous terrain: abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Years ago, I remember a couple came to my office seeking help for their marriage. Their complaint: All we can talk about any more is religion and politics. Although I remained cautiously hopeful, their complaint did not suggest an encouraging prognosis for a happy reconciliation.

I have been writing essays since 2002. I have written op-ed pieces in righteous anger only later to cringe when some new data appeared which made it clear to me that I had only a minimal grasp of the complexities expressed in my rant; I’d gone off half-cocked. I must confess there is a kind of fleeting intoxication that occurs, especially if the opinion – at least while I’m expressing it – is as right as rain. The need to be right can be hazardous to our health.

The kind of opinions being expressed can often be identified by the tone and the volume by which they are delivered. Opinions that share general observations are delivered in well-modulated tones that are collegial and inviting. If the opinions being shared are in the service of correcting what somebody sees as my misguided opinion, or trying in some way to win a point, the volume steadily rises while the tone loses any lyrical quality and grows increasingly dissonant.  

Anyone who has raised children, gone through their adolescent years and survived to tell the story, knows that being right has limited value in maintaining a happy family. This truism has found expression in the playful quip: Would you rather be right or stay married? The point here is that there are some things that are critical for our ongoing happiness and being right is rarely one of them.

Not long ago among the letters to the editors in the Star Democrat, there appeared a heated exchange of opinions on whether trickle-down economics works. For a few days, letters shot back and forth as each delivered his opinion with the measured authority and profound conviction. One letter explained that the policy was a success during the Regan era, while marshaling facts and figures to prove it. Another opinion piece quoted facts and figures that demonstrated how it had clearly not succeeded. Who knows the truth of the matter? We are so often left only with opinions, some interesting, some tedious, each defended fiercely, eloquently documented, and at the end of the day, hardly any are reconcilable.

It is both a blessing and a curse in how differently we can see the same things.

I do not propose that any of us should refrain from expressing opinions.  I do suggest that the wise treat their opinions tentatively, the way I once plotted courses during my sailing days. In determining the course, I chose to follow. I’d remain alert to any changes in the atmosphere that may indicate that maintaining my present course will be hazardous. In exchanging opinions without creating a storm and for safe sailing, Miss Manners and Bowditch’s, American Practical Navigator, are a must read.

Opinions, should have an element of flexibility and never be doggedly clung to as if they are eternal. Change is at the heart of all existence.

An old tale tells of the student who went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel distracted; I can’t focus, I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!” “It will pass,” the teacher said. A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so focused, so peaceful!” “It will pass,” the teacher replied.

Time and experience, if our minds remain pliable, are supposed to change our opinions and if not, at least modify them for no other reason that everything is changing. An inability to change them suggests a kind of psycho-spiritual paralysis, or worse still, that rigor mortis has finally set in. American poet, James Russel Lowell, said of such intransigent folk: “The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinion.”

It’s really ok to change our minds.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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