In Praise of Bewilderment
A couple weeks ago our local Wallowa County paper had a cartoon on the editorial page that showed two guys sitting over their beers at a bar. One is white, the other black. The white guy says, “I don’t know . . . nothing seems to make sense any more.” To which the black guy responds, “Tell me about it. I woke up depressed this morning because Liz Cheney lost her primary.”
The times they are a bewildering, to adapt a line from Bob Dylan. “Bewilderment: a state of being perplexed or confused.”
But Alan Levinovitz, writing at the Hedgehog Review, tells us that bewilderment is a good, not a bad thing. It is, for this professor, the pre-condition of learning. It’s an elegant little essay, which I encourage you to read in its entirety. Should you be bewildered, it will make you feel better.
Levinovitz says that anxious times, times when everything is or is alleged to be a crisis, result in levels of certainty that aren’t helpful, and certainly not conducive to learning. Along those lines I was struck by a similar comment from someone working to combat the opioid epidemic, cited by Beth Macy in her new book, Raising Lazarus. The problem said Nikki, is “Rigid thinking . . . which is a trauma response.” Sometimes it seems to me as if the 21st century has been one trauma on top on another. Lot of rigid thinking these days, that’s for sure.
Levinovitz begins his essay by bewildering readers about the stupid but widely accepted idea that religion and science are sworn enemies which require us to chose one side or the other, as those signs that say, “We believe in science.” Here’s Levinovitz:
“I use bewilderment in every class, especially when the topic seems settled. Take the relationship between religion and science. My students may be unfamiliar with the Scopes “monkey trial,” but almost all are certain that these are incompatible ways of knowing the world. Galileo vs. the Church. Evolution vs. the Bible. Done and done.
“When someone is certain, it is very hard to learn. So, I begin with bewilderment. Are you familiar with Gregor Mendel, the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic friar whose mathematical acumen and love of biology gave us the earliest known laws of genetic heredity? Did you know Sir Isaac Newton wrote much more about religion and astrology—no, not astronomy, astrology—than physics? Maybe you find history dull. Then consider Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health, leader of the human genome project, and…avowed evangelical Christian.”
Too much certainty turns us not only into little tyrants, but into people who are susceptible to big tyrants.
“In the absence of bewilderment, we become like tyrants: inflexible, certain, over-confident. Rigid oppositional binaries reign supreme. Religion vs. Science, Left vs. Right, Us vs. Them. Change is nearly impossible—the only way it can happen is through intensification of what we already believe, which isn’t really change so much as acceleration.
“And this brings us back to the problems we face in America (and, perhaps, globally). As we become like tyrants, we also become susceptible to the rhetoric of tyrants. We do not invent our rigid, moralistic binaries. They come from outside ourselves. And when we crave them, we seek out political leaders eager to provide them, despots shouting salvific certainties, red-faced and enraged, promising paradise if only we can rid ourselves of the damned and the unholy. Their politics can be nationalism, or it can be revolution—but it is always impatient. The devil, as they say, is in a rush.”
So, if you are like the guys in the bar, feeling confused, perplexed or bewildered, raise a toast!
Bewilderment doesn’t mean you can’t hold strong convictions, but it may mean greater nuance and complexity in our thinking and in our speaking/ listening. Levinovitz cites abortion as an example:
“Allowing bewilderment to infuse our approach to an issue does not mean we cannot have strong beliefs. I strongly support abortion rights, and I think rolling them back is a terrible mistake. But in the space created by bewilderment, I might temper my understanding of how those rights ought to be protected.
“Should parents be allowed to electively abort children based solely on dissatisfaction with their gender, as they often did (and do) in China? The thought of that disgusts me, and I’m not sure how to reconcile it with my support for abortion rights and my desire to keep the government out of women’s wombs. I’m bewildered. And when I foreground that bewilderment to someone who disagrees with me about abortion, our conversation turns into a dialogue instead of an argument. We make progress instead of war.”
I recall an old story about the psychologist Carl Jung. One of his clients knocked on Jung’s office door to share good news, “Dr. Jung, Dr. Jung, I have received a big promotion.” Jung frowned and said, “Hmmm . . . come in I think I may be able help you with that.” Bewilderment, maybe it’s the beginning of wisdom?