Eleanor Roosevelt once said:
“Great minds discuss ideas;
average minds discuss events;
small minds discuss people.”
I think if we’re being honest, we all do all of those things…so let’s take the idea of “minds” out of it and assume that we’re all capable of discussing any of the above things. The question then becomes: Do we? Which category do most of our conversations fall under? And what makes one better than another?
C. S. Lewis talks about this same idea in his book The Four Loves, in the “friendship” section. Friends, unlike familial relationships, are chosen. They are chosen not because one person or another is “nice,” but because of mutual interests. When friends get together, their conversations may touch on events or people, but primarily they fall back on discussing the thing that bound them together to begin with–the idea that they both love. Maybe it’s theology, maybe it’s mathematics, maybe it’s knitting or hockey or writing. The “what” doesn’t matter–what matters is the discovery of someone else who loves it like you do. It creates a comaradery that forms the basis of the relationship; and though you usually end up learning everything else about the person too, and caring about it, that “everything else” (the people and events of a person’s life) are still somewhat incidental to the binding agent of ideas.
Case in point: my best friend is Stephanie Morrill, YA writer. We met at a writers conference. Up until then, we both had many friends from our general lives, great friends even, to whom we were bound by faith or shared experiences or other interests. But it only took a few months for us to become best friends, because we shared the same primary interest: writing. Now, that was thirteen years ago. Over those thirteen years, we have learned all about each other’s families, daily lives, beliefs, hangups, faults, strengths, dreams, fears…you name it. Our friendship certainly isn’t only about writing at this point. But even now, a huge percentage of our conversations are about writing in one form or another. We check in via a video app once a week to report on our work. We share nearly daily not only what’s going on in our lives, but what’s going on in our stories. We are best friends–but at the core of that is that we are writing friends. Because we each define ourselves primarily as a writer.
When I first shared the Eleanor Roosevelt quote with my husband (he’d heard it before), it helped us to put words to some of our thoughts about other conversations we encounter in our day-to-day life. Every day, we take a walk. The purpose of the walk is to share our thoughts and take care of any planning for the day, so that we can then both get to work without interrupting each other a million times for these things. However, inevitably our conversations drift away from the practical–who’s going to take the kids to youth group this week? What time do we want to plan this meal with so and so?–and to ideas. What is the purpose of art? Why do some stories resonate and others fall flat? Why do some churches scoff at transubstantiation and other hold it as the most precious and sacred thing?
I don’t think this says anything about our minds being particularly great–but I do think it speaks to the habits we have formed in our relationship…and the fact that our relationship has as its foundation a lot of shared ideas.
But let’s chat for a minute about why there’s a hierarchy of subjects.
Let’s start with people. Anyone can talk about other people, right? And to a point, we need to. I need to know that my grandmother was just taken to the hospital, and how she’s doing. I need to know when my parents will be out of town. I even need to know what Stephanie’s neighbor is up to now, in that it impacts Stephanie’s life. I wouldn’t call talking about people small-minded–but I would call it “normal.” Or even “ordinary.” It’s what anyone can do, and what comes all too easily.
It’s also what leads us into the sin of gossip. Because talking about people doesn’t usually just involve facts–it involves judgment. Lewis also observes in The Four Loves that “the human mind wants to make every distinction one of value.” Which is to say, we can’t compare without deciding that one is superior to another. You can’t even compare two colors of shirts without deciding which one you prefer. Well, the same goes for people. We can’t note a distinction between Mr. A and Ms. B without judging between them. We can’t compare them to ourselves without either feeling lacking or superior. We can’t see two lovely people without trying to decide who’s lovelier. Nicer. Smarter. Funnier. More faithful. You name it.
This doesn’t only lead us to gossip–it leads us to bullying. Sexism. Racism. Bigotry. Religious extremism. Terrorism. Genocide. So many of society’s problems come from comparing people.
Then we have events. We can view this as “just the facts.” The news. The things happening. Certainly not bad things to know…but as I’m sure we’ve all run into time and again, there’s really no such things as “just the facts” without a slant. This is, again, something we as humans just naturally do. We interpret facts. And how are we interpreting them? Through what lens?
One of the things my husband is most “famous” for saying is “Know your why.” This call to self-awareness is so crucial–if you know why you do something, why you view events the way you do, why you make the choices you make, why you view people in the way you do, then you can perform a self-check on whether it’s right. Whether it’s good. Whether it’s the way God views those people or events. If you know why an event is being interpreted in a certain way–whether by you or someone else–then you can guard against the slant. You are, basically, turning the event into an idea.
Let’s take the riots last year as an example, because they served to open my eyes to this in a lot of ways. If you view it simply as events–riots, destruction, violence–then you’re simply going to condemn those involved. But if you look past the events, to the ideas behind them–to the people hurting, to the desperation, the cry to be seen–then you could well view the event in a different way. A way that doesn’t negate “the facts” of violence, but which give them a broader context. A way that might make you ask, “What would it take to push me to that point? What can I do to help?” instead of just judging and condemning.
Ideas, you see, invite us to look at things from new perspectives. They challenge us. They make us stretch and grow. Aristotle says that “all men by nature seek to learn.” My favorite translation puts it this way: “All men, by nature, stretch themselves out toward knowing.” That’s the power of talking about ideas with other people who also like to talk about ideas–it stretches us out toward knowing. It invites us deeper into the events and people we know by asking the bigger questions about who they are, what makes them want they want, what fuels the events of the day, what we can do to interact with or change them.
Of course, if you only ever talk about ideas and never put action to them, you won’t ever accomplish much–even this requires a balance, right? (Something I’m so guilty of! I’m great at ideas…less great at following through on them, LOL.)
But the first step to going deeper in life, dreaming bigger dreams, growing closer to God is always to turn your own thoughts and conversations along that path. Expand it from people to events, and then from events to ideas. Ask why? Ask how? And approach every topic with an open mind and heart, always considering first “Are my assumptions wrong?” If you start there, you’re going to be amazed at the new ideas, the new Truths that become clear to you.
And soon you’ll find yourself making Eleanor Roosevelt proud. 😉 More, you’ll find yourself drawing ever nearer to the God of all Truth, who cautions us against judging others and viewing the world through human eyes. It will draw us ever closer to seeing things through His eyes instead.