Maybe this was only the irrational fear of a 12-year-old, the fear of not having opinions on anything. It came from this idea that I don’t have anything to say because I don’t have thoughts about them and that those non-thoughts form only non-opinions. I don’t say things because I don’t have anything to say. Without an opinion, I don’t have a stake in the conversation, in what’s being put forward as right, as legitimate, as ethical, as the way things should be in the world. I don’t have opinions on anything. This fear hung in the air for a good chunk of my teenage years.
American grade school (and into college) is a place where young people are lauded for their “participation” because this active contribution to the classroom is hailed as the way that people are heard and legitimate and intelligent. These people are the ones that move the discussion forward, that defend their arguments to others, and have influence, and what I’ve heard called “leadership” skills. To voice your opinion and your thoughts on some issue is to be worldly and to “know your stuff.” In other cultures, it’s called being rude, loud, obnoxious, and/or imposing on others. For a long time, I had trouble reconciling these two worlds.
I’ve come to realize that, back then, I was only gathering information, so-called data on truth. It is without doubt that from a young age, I had some kind of obsession with the truth. I struggled with the idea that perhaps, and probably, there is no real truth in the universe. As you can imagine, this made religion a difficult concept for me to grasp. While you could argue that I wasn’t brought up Christian enough to take certain ideas as self-evident, I’d argue that it was in my nature to be skeptical of that which could not be reasonably or definitively proven multiple times over. Rather, it was my acceptance of religion as a value to human society rather than the belief system of any one religion that answered my questions into why it should exist at all.
I had a certain way of speaking. [Some would argue that this sentence should be written in the present: I have a certain way of speaking. Perhaps.] Things had to be worthy. Statements had to be worth the effort of speech. And correspondingly worth the time spent listening to it. Hey, I’ve always been considerate. Speech had to make some worthy contribution – worthy meaning thought-provoking or relevant, adding something new. Why would you spend your time listening to and learning the same things over and over again? You wouldn’t. But perhaps this leads me to make too many assumptions about what other people would find interesting or relevant or new or of value. Maybe it is only an excuse for me to continue gathering information without making my own contribution to that data collection and its synthesis. Maybe the assumption that people see what I see given the same information is too strong. But hey, I’m learning.
This is yet another fear about which my 20-something-year-old self would be able to reassure my 12- and 15- and 17-year-old selves. I have opinions. And strong ones. I have opinions that after 20-odd years of data collection in the form of experiences, anecdotes, media consumption, diversity, culture, and (I hope) continued openness have cultivated. I have things to say and it matters that I say them. Though I remain reserved, these are opinions that I will honestly share while being conservative with who is worthy to hear them. After years of being a woman, I know well when words only fall on deaf ears.
This past month has reminded me of these past fears and more recent realizations, and really in ways that I would have gladly gone without. It reminded me that I am capable of an emotional violence in my opinions and beliefs at a very basic, fundamental level – a driving force that remains hidden if not completely smothered in the day-to-day. And it reminded me again that there is so much more truth to learn. That settling down is not an option. We must instead strive to engage and listen and contribute and find those things that are worthy. That complacency and blind trust is dangerous. And that those with all of the loud opinions may be more empty air than American reverence would make them seem.