Think about this for a while: Whatever happened to thinking?
No really, think about that a little longer before moving on.
Now that you have given that question some thought, let’s move on.
For the discussion that follows, we will dispense with two words and not use them, but rather treat them as illegal for the purposes of our thinking.
The words are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Why am I apparently dispensing with them?
Because right and wrong are really subjective rather than objective. Even if we speak of right and wrong as we find it in the Bible, that is subject to our interpretation of what the words mean to the individual; how they should be applied, how and if they transfer across cultures, and so on. The nett result is that right and wrong is not a good foundation on which to start. Let me give you an example that will resonate with parents.
When a male toddler begins to touch and play with his penis, is it ‘wrong’?
It may be culturally unacceptable, but is it ‘wrong’?
It may be embarrassing if other people see him doing it, but is it ‘wrong’?
I have heard such parents scolding the boy because it was ‘wrong’ – but even worse, I have heard a parent scolding the boy because it was ‘dirty’ and therefore it was ‘wrong’; but was it really ‘dirty’ or ‘wrong’?
The child was exploring his own body – is that ‘wrong’?
Parents need to be so careful about using the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and they should rather speak of that which is appropriate (for an occasion) or acceptable (on that occasion) and explain why – rather than just resorting to saying that it is ‘wrong’ or ‘dirty’.
All of that is why we will not use the words ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ in the discussion that follows.
In order to help us learn to think more deeply now, we will explore a number of subtopics and consider them briefly before forming conclusions or making recommendations.
We must acknowledge the importance of consequences. All of our words and actions have consequences, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, and whether we care or not. Consequently, consequences always affect our relationships. To be ignorant of consequences is to be making choices in ignorance.
As children grow they see things differently from the way they did before. Their worldview is constantly changing and their beliefs and values are often being updated, or even revolutionised. An important part of their growth is to see that the world does not revolve around them and their lives, and also for them to see that other people have value, too. Yesterday’s way of seeing things was not ‘wrong’ – it was just appropriate for yesterday but not appropriate for today.
Maturity is that which we always seek but never seem to attain. No matter how old we are as adults, there is always more to discover, there is always more to learn, and there is always more to experience. Our constant growth towards a greater maturity often looks back and recognises where immaturity once held sway. That immaturity was not ‘wrong’, it was just immature.
Assumption is the mother of deception and we must never forget where ASSumption begins. Assumption is the death of a thousand cuts that laid exploration on the altar as a sacrifice. Assumption despises experience and dismisses it as being an unnecessary waste of time and effort.
One growth area that children can find both comfortable and uncomfortable is the aspect of being part of a community. Where once there was only their immediate family – although they took some getting used to! – suddenly there was a plethora of people that they were exposed to, with lots of noise, mess and intrusion upon their senses.
As children grow, they begin to separate fantasy from reality. They begin to realise that their wishes and wants are not always granted, and that what they did not wish for or did not want sometimes happens. They come to realize that the world around them is not focused on them. Their concept of reality is being radically transformed.
As adults, we have formed opinions on many things, and those opinions have been shaped and honed by many people and many circumstances. It may come as a shock to realize that the world is not waiting with baited breath to hear our opinions, and neither are the people with whom we spend our days and nights.
How do we grow and mature in the thinking that forms our opinions? How do we experience new concepts, new ideas, and new realities? How do we know what is possible but yet currently lies beyond our understanding and experience? How do we stop being self-centered and transform into a new way of being and doing?
Now that we have given some thought to the subjects above, let’s do some thinking about thinking, and about how our thinking affects our whole lives. We surely want to be able to grow in our thinking, we surely want to explore new concepts and ideas, we surely want to embrace new experiences. Or do we? Do we think that what we already know is all that there is to know? Do we think that we have everything all worked out?
We need to use all the life skills that we have if we are to grow in experience, and therefore in understanding. Understanding rarely leads to genuine experience, but experience always leads to genuine understanding. Both of one kind or another. Let’s consider some life skills and see how we can use them to help us to grow and mature. Let’s consider how, in whatever circumstances that we find ourselves, we can go beyond requirements, rise above the normal, and surprise ourselves as well as others.
Wherever you go, either on your own or with someone else, watch other people. Observe behaviour and mannerisms and ask yourself questions about what you see. Pick up also on delays in people replying, the way things are said that might be unusual, the pose in which a person is, the unexpected answer to a question, and so on. Watch people who are on the edge of the main action or discussion, and observe and gain wisdom as you watch and listen. You will potentially learn a great deal by watching people who are not part of the main conversation or action. You will see those people who are either excluded, or who have excluded themselves.
Film-makers are well aware of the importance of keen observation and careful listening. When you have seen a really good film for the first time, watch it for a second time but do not focus on the main characters or main action as you did before. The main characters and main action will usually be in the centre of the screen. Focus instead on what is happening in the background and sideground – around the edges of the main characters and main action. See the tiny incident you missed first time round. Listen to the throwaway line that you didn’t hear first time. See the title of the book on the table that you didn’t catch first time. See what is on the computer screen that you overlooked the first time round. See what the person on the very edge of the action is doing. And so on. In this way, you can train yourself to be observant and practise that skill. Such a skill is very useful in helping yourself to grow and develop. You will soon find yourself watching and listening to people who are in the background.
As I said already with regard to films, be aware of small details! Little incidents and throwaway words and gestures can be very important in helping you to discern people, to know people, and to understand people. When you are with people but you are in the background, you will sometimes go mostly unnoticed by the main characters around you. Watch the people in the background or sideground who are not main characters. Watch out for the small, but important, details that are easily missed.
You can learn a great deal about people by observing them in their various settings, moods, environments, and so on. This is especially true when people are relaxing or playing. You can learn a lot about people and from people when they are relaxed and enjoying themselves. People who are relaxed and enjoying recreation may often say and do things that they would not normally say and do in the course of daily life.
It is very hard to listen when you are talking. I am often reminded that we have two ears but only one mouth. Yet listening to someone is about so much more than merely hearing the words that they speak. Listening needs to be closely allied to watching. Our ears can miss clues that our eyes would pick up. The opposite is also true, of course.
Listen to hearts more than you listen to heads. People do not speak from neutrality. They are affected by many things that influence their words at any given moment. Listening to people’s hearts shows that you care about the person that you are currently with. Listening is at its most useful when you do not interrupt the person by talking yourself. Take time to discern what you are hearing.
Learn to sense what is going on in other people’s hearts. Some people are easier to read than others, and it all depends how open their hearts are. But some people’s hearts will sing their songs even when those people themselves do not realise it. Pain and wounding will often show through a person, despite their best attempts to hide it. Their heart songs may be sad or glad – but they are there for those who watch, listen and discern.
Discerning a person’s heart helps you to decide your best response to them. Here is an important principle: Discerning people’s hearts will tell you the most about people, but you must practise listening to their hearts in order to best discern them.
When you have discerned someone’s heart – what then? What do you do with the wisdom and insight that you have gained? Is that insight correct? Is it consistent with what you know of the person over a longer period? Is it appropriate for you to say anything at all?
That leads to another important principle: Once you have discerned someone’s heart, it is vitally important that you carefully decide your next course of action. Unthinking and unwise words or actions can freshly wound an already hurting person, so be careful.
It may not be appropriate to share with others the insight that you believe you have gained. Learn not to speak or act in haste. And NEVER try to show off because you have learned something about someone – that will surely rebound on you and damage that relationship. It is not just the other person that you need to think about – it is also important to think about yourself.
What would your reaction would be if a person was angry with you, or hurt you? Unthinking or badly expressed words can hurt people, so think before you speak! You cannot recall hasty words. Life does not have an ‘UNDO’ button! Neither does your mouth. Therefore, here is a vitally important principle: Put yourself in the shoes of others and listen very carefully to yourself.
One very important tool you have available to help you grow and mature – and to grow in relationship with others – is questions. Questions are a greatly undervalued and yet also a terribly misused tool. Questions are sometimes used so carelessly and so cruelly that we easily forget just how good and useful a tool they really are. Used unwisely, they are intrusive and offensive; used wisely, they are able to bring great benefit. But how should questions be used?
Consider very young children. Here is a fictional (or is it?) conversation between a busy mother who is preparing vegetables at the sink and a toddler boy by her side who is far too small to see what his mother is doing:
BOY: What you doing mummy?
MUM: Peeling a potato.
BOY: What’s a potato mummy?
MUM: It’s a vegetable.
BOY: What’s a vegetable mummy?
MUM: It’s what we’re having for tea.
BOY: When’s tea mummy?
MUM: Not for a while yet.
BOY: Why mummy?
MUM: Because I’m only peeling potatoes now.
BOY: What you doing now mummy?
MUM: Peeling another potato.
BOY: But you did one already mummy.
MUM: We need a lot of potatoes.
BOY: Why mummy?
MUM: To feed all of us.
BOY: What are you doing now mummy?
MUM: Go watch TV.
It would never happen like that, would it? But it does… Insatiable questions from insatiable curiosity. But here is the most important revelation that comes from that little conversation: The boy was never seeking information from his mother; he was seeking relationship. He wanted to know that he was important to his mother.
His mother knows all that, of course she does. The boy didn’t want words or facts; he wanted his mum. But things also needed to get done for the family meal. Children RARELY seek mere information; they ALMOST ALWAYS seek personal attention. They want to know that they are worth giving attention to. They want to know that they are valued.
Believing that young children use questions only to seek information is to completely misunderstand and misread them. To prove the point, listen to the same sort of conversation we considered a moment ago where it is the father who is preparing food and he typically thinks that the boy is looking for information:
BOY: What you doing daddy?
DAD: Peeling a potato.
BOY: What’s a potato daddy?
DAD: It’s a white vegetable with a skin that grows in the ground in certain places and climates. Since we cannot grow them right here, we buy them from the supermarket. Remember the supermarket? That was the place where you had the almighty tantrum and destroyed an entire display of beans – beans being the little squishy tomatoey things that you have on toast. Remember beans? Those orangey things you freely distributed around the dining room last week. And we’re still finding them. Remember toast? It is the piece of bread that you think is a frisbee and you throw at the dog. Anyway, back to potatoes – they are good for you and today I am going to mash them. Oh, I know – what does ‘mash’ mean? It means that when they are fully cooked I am going to bash them up and make them white, soft and fluffy – just like your gran’s hair. And before you ask, no we are not going to mash your gran’s hair today, and no your gran is not coming here either. Now, where was I? What was your question again son?
BOY: Nothing dad.
DAD: Well, if you ever want to know anything son, just ask me.
It would never happen like that, would it? Not likely!
Dad only heard the words of the toddler’s mouth and not the real question. The real question was: ‘Can I have your attention dad?’ The toddler’s heart’s desire was to be treated as valuable and therefore receive his father’s time and attention.
Why is all this important? Because so many adults do exactly the same things with each other. They hear words but ignore hearts. They go for the easy option of merely giving information instead of truly engaging with the person.
Questions carefully used can evoke a response far beyond the meaning of the words. Questions are a powerful tool, and they need to be used wisely and carefully.
Here then is a very important principle: People may often reveal very significant things about themselves and their circumstances when they are answering questions that are carefully and wisely put to them.
The trouble is that so few people use questions carefully and wisely, and even fewer people are careful and wise in receiving the response of the person they asked the question of. But questions are such an important – if basic – tool that we need to develop our skills in asking and hearing if we are to get closer to people and have meaningful relationships. Here are some thoughts to hold along with questions.
• Listen to a person, but not just their words. How long do they take to reply to a question? How freely do they take part in open conversation? Is their language critical of others? Are they on a soapbox (metaphorically speaking)? And so on.
• Watch the person. Where do they stand in relation to others? Do they face people or turn away? Are they close to people or a distance away? Do they follow people around or lead others around? And so on.
• Greet the person when and how it is appropriate to do so. Try and be creative in greeting people. Try and sound like you mean it, too.
• Ask appropriate questions carefully and wisely. The most appropriate questions are non-threatening and follow on from what the other person is saying.
• Hear the words they speak and watch what they do – but sense their heart also in how they respond. Judge their mood and feelings, and decide on your next words carefully and wisely in the light of what you feel about them.
• If in doubt – shut up. Even a fool who keeps quiet is considered wise.
Questions are a vitally important and underrated tool in helping you to establish and develop relationships, and it is vitally important to use words and questions carefully and wisely. Questions used well are very useful in helping to get closer to other people. Questions used carefully and wisely show that you are interested in the person you are asking the questions of and that you are not merely seeking information. Questions used carefully and wisely show that you care. But remember – if you ask a question, always give the person time to answer.
If your questions are touching a person’s heart, it may take them a little while to respond – they may not even respond at all on that occasion, but they may do so later. Listening is a vitally important tool that needs to be used alongside questions, so don’t be afraid of silences after you have asked questions! Train yourself by keeping on asking questions in your own heart and mind. Discipline yourself by questions too. Be constantly asking yourself questions like:
* How will this person react to what I am about to say or do?
* How can I say things in a non-threatening way?
* How can I show that I care?
And so on. Constantly monitor your own words and deeds by asking yourself questions. And don’t be surprised if you get an answer….
How you answer questions put to you (by anyone) is very important. Therefore, think very carefully how you answer questions. For example, your friends may know you well and understand your sense of humour, but no-one else have a clue why you said what you said. Make sure your answers ooze respect, and there are a number of ways in which you can do that:
* Answer the question that was asked – NOT the question you THOUGHT was asked.
* Don’t give a rambling answer to a question that only needed a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.
* Don’t answer a question that wasn’t asked; that may be their next question.
* Don’t use a one word answer for a question that needs response in some depth.
* Be aware of who else is in earshot, and think about them as you answer.
* Think about circumstances when you answer a question.
* If you are in a burning building and someone asks you where the fire escape is, it is not a good idea to give them a ten minute rambling answer.
* Show respect in your answer in order to remind yourself who you are speaking to.
* Show a respectful eagerness in your answers.
* Don’t force anyone to squeeze information out of you when you should have given that information in the first place.
* ALWAYS respect confidentiality.
* Don’t use an answer as an opportunity to attack other people.
* Remember that words spoken cannot be recalled – your mouth does not have an ‘undo’ button…
F. GOING BEYOND REQUIREMENTS
Our thinking is both affected by, and effects the whole of, our lives. This is nowhere so as true as it is with regard to our relationships within the context of Christianity in general, and church in particular. It is so easy to say that we live to serve other people, but it can get very difficult when the consequences of such a statement are brought home to us. We are very often told what is required of us as Christians, but how do we go beyond mere requirements and give that which is not required or demanded?
Serving other people always gives us an insight into our own character, and it can sometimes reveal parts of us that we did not know existed, or that we thought that we had dealt with. One thought here is that whatever is required of as Christians is not a target to be achieved, but the starting point of true service. Therefore, what is required of us is not something to be achieved and applauded, but that foundation on which we base our lives of service.
It is good to learn when it is appropriate to speak, and when it is best to keep quiet. We should not be afraid of silence, and that is equally true in whatever context that we find ourselves in. The deeper the relationship, the fewer words are needed. Yet, silence can be so uncomfortable for some people. If nature abhors a vacuum, how much more does talk abhor silence! A deep relationship is one in which both (or all) people can be comfortable in silence.
At the heart of all relationships is respect. Respect for the other person. Respect that recognises the worth of the other person, and is (relatively) unconcerned with position or status. Even in a business environment, is it always necessary to pull rank? Or to raise your voice?
The person that you are speaking to about a particular situation may have more information about that situation than you do. They may be aware of factors that mean that the logical path is actually not the best way to go on this occasion. Are we ready to give way and, if necessary, to be directed?
Paul Simon wrote and recorded a wonderful song called “Tenderness”. You will find it on his album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’. It is worth listening to every day in life, and absorbing the wisdom in the song. Our thinking affects our attitude and our attitude affects our thinking.
Are we tender when we speak to people? Are we gentle both in the choice of words that we use and in the way that we say those words? Are we careful to not let our own prejudices and preferences colour how we receive from other people? We must not only seek confirmation for our own opinions or ideas, but be open to persuasion and convincing without being rude or aggressive in defending our own position.
J. IN CONCLUSION
Let’s be a thinking people who are quick to learn and slow to teach. Let’s be a thinking people who value people and who value what they have to give more than we value what we are and what we have to give. Let’s be a thinking people who strengthen, encourage and support other people. Let’s be human. Let’s think. The load isn’t too heavy to bear.