The Value Of Shutting Up Every Once In A While

There’s an apocryphal story that, by this point, I feel like has been told to just about everyone, so you’ve probably heard of it. It involves a young man who wants to gain wisdom, and so goes to visit a man rumored to be very wise and asks for the privilege of being his student. The wise man invites our protagonist in for a drink, and starts to pour him a glass. However, the glass is already full, and quickly begins to overflow. At this, the young man protests, asking his wiser counterpart to pout out the glass first before filling it. To this, the wise man responds that wisdom works the same way: to learn, we must first empty ourselves of the things we think we know and proceed in knowledge of our ignorance.

This, of course, is true in all aspects of our lives, but it’s much harder to do in some than it is in others. Particularly, it’s hard to do this with knowledge that’s been reinforced throughout our lives. Take the role of the police. I was raised in a situation where I would always be presumed innocent, where I could say with complete honesty and certainty that the police were around to protect me. The idea that someone could have a different experience with them was, for a long time, simply bizarre to me. Of course, however, many do. There are plenty in America who are not so easily given the benefit of the doubt, for whom the phrase “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” isn’t a convincing argument. This took me a very long time to learn. 

This, on a very basic level, makes sense. We live only as ourselves, after all, learn only as ourselves, so the idea that others might have learned different lessons or lived different experiences about things as fundamental as how they’re treated by society or the perception of others seems just about impossible to us.These things are drilled into us over and over, and it’s far more comfortable to question others than it is ourselves, so we do. We search for extenuating circumstances for those who are like us. We vilify those who have different experiences of the world. We set our own norms of behavior as the standard for all others. We confirm, at any cost, our own internal life, attempt to universalize it at any cost, and it’s understandable that we do so.

In other words, what we do so often when we’re confronted with those who have is talk. What we need to do instead is listen. As understandable as it is that we try to exonerate our own view of the world, it’s so much more important that we understand ours is only one of many, informed by our own particular circumstances and far from universal. Talking about our own experiences, our own view of the world, so often leads to us talking past each other, learning nothing, trying to fill an already-full cup. So perhaps the next time we hear someone saying something about the world we take for granted, instead of trying to rationalize our own or fit them into it, we should shut up for a moment, take a second, and simply listen.