Thinking (or “On the Virtues of Not Being Soft-Minded”)


“All too many people are content with a soft mind. Soft-mindedness is expressed in a person’s gullibility. A soft-minded person believes anything. Soft-minded people are susceptible to belief in all kinds of superstitions. Almost any irrational fear can invade a soft mind without any sign of resistance. There is little hope for us in our personal or collective lives until we become tough-minded enough to rise about the shackles of half-truths and distortions. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of being soft-minded. Hitler realized that soft-mindedness was so prevalent among his followers, not to mention humankind as a whole, that he said, ‘I use emotion for the many and I reserve reason for the few.’ A nation of soft-minded men and women is purchasing its own spiritual death and destruction on an installment plan. It is a rarity to find someone who is willing to engage in hard, serious thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than the idea of having to think.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (this is my abridgment from his sermon “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart“)

I have a lot of reservations about dichotomizing the heart and head and trying to separate the two completely. The whole heart/mind dichotomy strikes me as a bit of a false dilemma and also a dangerous and misleading one to present people with—that it’s somehow better to live from the heart rather than the mind. —After all, wasn’t it the heart getting wounded in the first place that necessitated it armoring itself up?

I would bristle less if the dichotomy were presented in terms of living from the heart versus living from the ego, or even better, living from the soul versus living from the ego. That last one, in fact, makes the most sense to me.  I actually am a big fan of the mind; I like the human intellect a lot—especially when it’s not driven by too much ego or blindness to oneself.  And I like it even better when it’s working in unison with what’s best in our hearts. (I’m not sure how pure our hearts are to begin with; I’m not willing to chalk everything up to bad parenting and bad societal influences; I tend to suspect the human heart is much less than all-pure and all-innocent and all-good.)

To try to dismiss the head in order to “live from the heart” seems, well, to be perfectly honest (and blunt), rather foolish, if not regressive.  It seems to be yet another case of all-or-nothing thinking, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It seems to me that the ideal for each of us would be to couple a soft, open, compassion, loving and kind heart with a wise and discerning and insightful mind.  Martin Luther King Jr. seems to have seen it that way—that the ideal that each of us as human beings should strive for (and thus that we each owe to ourselves and to the world) is the actualization of both a tender heart and a tough mind—

“All too many people are content with a soft mind. Soft-mindedness is expressed in a person’s gullibility. A soft-minded person believes anything. Soft-minded people are susceptible to belief in all kinds of superstitions. Almost any irrational fear can invade a soft mind without any sign of resistance. There is little hope for us in our personal or collective lives until we become tough-minded enough to rise about the shackles of half-truths and distortions. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of being soft-minded. Hitler realized that soft-mindedness was so prevalent among his followers, not to mention humankind as a whole, that he said, ‘I use emotion for the many and I reserve reason for the few.’ A nation of soft-minded men and women is purchasing its own spiritual death and destruction on an installment plan. It is a rarity to find someone who is willing to engage in hard, serious thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than the idea of having to think.”

A soft-heart is no protection against a soft-mind. The heart can be easily misled and manipulated and suckered into believing all sorts of cons and ruses and appeals to its sympathies.

Yet shutting down the heart and or armoring it up extensively is no better a solution.

The ideal, it seems to me, would to be for each of us to become as wise as serpents and gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16)—to have both a soft-heart and a wise and tough mind (that is, to be able to think critically and objectively and without bias—which means being able to look at ourselves discerningly as well!).  Not one or the other, but both.  Because one without the other is (likely) a recipe for personal, if not societal, disaster.  “To have serpent-like qualities devoid of dove-like qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dove-like qualities without serpent-like qualities is to be sentimental, gullible, aimless, and empty” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

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