I was having a conversation yesterday in which a friend of mine reminded me of a passage from Plato’s Symposium. In the passage Alcibiades remarks on a strange habit that Socrates had of stopping to think about things:
“One day, at dawn, [in the middle of a army encampment, Socrates] started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood in the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the Sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.”
My friend went on to say that this represented to him the dedication to the increasingly rare virtue of sustained thought. Yes, he called sustained thought a virtue.
My experience has been in my own life is that thinking (let alone sustained thought on a topic) gets left for periods of leisure, or is never taken up at all. I have not often seen it as a necessity; perhaps because it seems boring, intimidating, or because I can use Google in order to find someone who can tell me what to believe. And yet, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the task of contemplation is an urgent one. Why? For several reasons:
(1) Sustained thought creates and feeds your inner world. Many of us at at least some point in our lives feel a lot like a hollow patchwork shell of other people’s expectations, relentless actions, and achievements. We don’t have much inner world to speak of; we are constantly on the move and may not even be sure what is motivating us in any given direction. To live the unexamined and externally-motivated life is to live an impoverished life. In order to live in a way that will give us joy and purpose and will be of true value to others, we need to become a true and vivid person in our own minds, and this doesn’t happen unless we spend lots of time thinking and evaluating. And there will inevitably come a time when age or disease slows us down or stops us all together, and then we are left with ourselves in a way that may be entirely uncomfortable if we haven’t been familiar with ourselves for a long time or maybe don’t really see much inside at all even if we dare look.
(2) Sustained thought allows you to be your own person. God gave you a brain, which means he wants you to think for yourself. There are lots of other people who are ready to do the thinking for if you let them, but they could be downright wrong and/or have an agenda that is driving what they are discovering and teaching that you may not share. Spending the time to think through an issue yourself is the best way to assert your own beliefs and make sure the opinion you espouse in the end is actually consistent with your own values and who you are, even if in the end you end up coming to the same conclusion you might have if you just quickly surveyed the Google results.
(3) Sustained thought fosters creativity. If we aren’t spending time to think, then we aren’t thinking outside the box, which means the original solution that might be the answer to our problems has no chance of coming to the surface. Without sustained thought about the presenting issue, we are doomed to try old (and lackluster) solutions because these are all we have access to, and then we get less than ideal or even downright horrible and destructive results.
(4) Sustained thought counters thoughtlessness. This friend who pointed me to the passage in Plato also taught me that the brain can be thought of a muscle that benefits from a good workout. I was telling him that I was quite discouraged with how thoughtless I have been for much of my life — both forgetful and also moving to action without thinking through the situation from the point of view of those I care about and who might be affected by the action. He said that like any muscle, you don’t just expect to lift something heavy without training, so I shouldn’t enter a situation, be thoughtless, and then walk away frustrated, because I didn’t train for it so it isn’t a surprise that I wasn’t as thoughtful as I might have liked to be. He coached me to practice deliberate thoughtfulness — to purposely take some time out on a regular basis to think about a certain situation or person, so that when I encounter a time when I am required to assess something, that person or similar situation will jump to mind and some of my “pre-thinking” will help me in that moment decide on a course of action that is beneficial for anyone who might be involved or affected.