Jumping to Conclusions

by Phil Porter
an excerpt from his book The Slightly Mad Rantings of a Body Intellectual Part One

In the beginning is experience.

the_big_picture_2Almost before something has finished happening to us, we are constructing architectures of meaning with it. We want explanations, we want to see how it fits in the big picture, we want to know where it is going and what we might do with it. We want to knit a sweater out of it, wrap it around ourselves, and sit in front of the fire with it. We want to learn from it, wrestle it to the ground, fit it into a slot or two. We want to know why? why? why?

In the process we are jumping to conclusions. And our conclusions have a high probability of being wrong because they aren’t based on enough information.

We would be much better off if we could stay closer to the immediacy of what is happening to us and pull ourselves back from propelling it into the future. For everything that we experience there may be multiple explanations. If we settle too soon on one or another, we risk choosing the wrong one. We may also create generalizations out of an experience that was really an anomaly. We may be paying more attention than we should to something inconsequential.

Let’s say for example that we feel a pain in our chest. It could be a muscle spasm, indigestion, or just an odd something or other. OR IT COULD BE A HEART ATTACK! Given our human need and desire for drama, we probably leapt straight for that last one.

Now, I am not saying that we should minimize our experience, that we shouldn’t be at least a bit prepared for the next big thing to happen. But mostly in our lives the next big thing doesn’t happen, and what we are creating is not readiness but anxiety.

The worst of it is that we don’t stop with theorizing about our own experience. We also love to conjecture reasons for the behavior of others that we observe. This may be risky or even unfair. Though we can see certain things, we can’t know completely what is going on for another. Immediately we are a step away from direct experience.

To help me remember that moving to explanations for my own and others’ behavior may be a dicey activity, I use the “crackpot theory” practice. If I find myself spouting off one of my ideas about why people or events are the way they are, I label it a “crackpot theory,” preferably aloud. This convenient tool allows me to indulge what seems to be a quite common human desire while at the same time not taking myself too seriously. Others are also given more latitude to accept or reject what I have said because I haven’t presented it as fact or truth.

Having taken some responsibility for framing my opinions actually increases the range of my theorizing. I’m just making the stuff up, so why limit myself? I can create crackpot psychology, crackpot physics, crackpot sociology, crackpot theology… the sky’s the limit!

And if I combine the crackpot theory practice with the practice of compassionate imagination, I am less likely to do much damage.

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