Simcha Fisher: Don’t live in a pre-furnished house of ideas

Reading Time: 5 minutes
A woman prays in a Catholic Church. PHOTO: CNS, Martin Villar, Reuters

It’s a trap we can so easily fall into

Just for fun, one of my sisters posted on social media, “Tell me something about you that sounds like a lie but is true.” The first thing that popped into my head: I vastly prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. I knew that would surprise people, and I wasn’t wrong.

There are various, well-examined reasons our family attends a Novus Ordo Mass, instead. But when I said on Facebook that I vastly prefer the TLM, a few people were (as I expected) astonished. Perhaps because I’ve written about feminism and consent and because I’m not a republican, they assumed I must therefore hate tradition and prefer modernism, or perhaps that I have some kind of aversion to reverence or beauty, or that I think the past is just full of garbage and should be erased whenever possible.

These assumptions are, of course, a stereotype, just as it’s a stereotype to assume that anyone who loves the TLM must be rigid and sexist and dour and judgmental. Some people are this way, but some are not. It’s not wrong to notice trends and patterns, but it is wrong to assume that everyone you meet must be part of that pattern.

Rather than avail ourselves of the subtlety of thought we’re capable of, we just slap a label on ourselves and refuse to worry about the details.

But I had to acknowledge that I do this to other people all the time. I make sweeping assumptions about people’s worldview based on a few allegedly tell-tale comments or preferences. I assume that if they disagree with me on one important thing, they’ll disagree with me on all important things, and are also moreover probably incapable of basic decency.  I do this even though I’ve been surprised and proven wrong more times than I can count; and I do this even though it drives me crazy when people do it to me!

Well, it’s old news to preach against stereotyping, making assumptions, and slapping labels on people. What I’d like to hear more about is how we make assumptions about ourselves.

Again, I’m an offender here. When a conversation gets heated, I have found myself arguing passionately for some idea; but when I cool down, I realise I don’t even believe it, or care about it. I just needed to say the opposite of what this jerk probably thinks.

Or I have found myself shying away from things I do believe in (the pro-life movement springs to mind) just because other people who also profess to value them are unpleasant. I let my intellect get narrowed down into a simple caricature. I let myself believe that, because I have a thing or two in common with a certain group, I should just go ahead and identify with them wholesale. Or, even worse, I let myself believe that, because I have a bone or two to pick with a certain group, I should go ahead and reject them wholesale.

This is actually the work of Satan. Sounds dramatic, I know, but listen. It’s a form of depersonalisation, and this is a great offense against God. God wants us to be individuals who can think, who can express ourselves, who can communicate meaningfully with each other, and who can respond to each other, and who can change. This is how he made us. This is unlike any other creature he has made, as far as I know.

The human person is a strange and (potentially) gorgeously complex organism that is capable of a whole galaxy of intellectual variety. It’s wonderful, but it’s also a lot to manage! So when we encounter a new idea, we often get lazy. Rather than avail ourselves of the subtlety of thought we’re capable of, we just slap a label on ourselves and refuse to worry about the details.

It’s especially dangerous to get in the habit of accepting entire categories of beliefs wholesale, rather than examining them individually, because of the “Overton window” effect. Categories can shift.

But when you routinely accept a whole bundle of ideas without examining what’s inside, you’re far less likely to notice that today’s bundle is slightly different from yesterday’s, and quite different from last year’s, and that you now believe things that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but you didn’t even notice the shift, because it happened gradually, and it happened wholesale.

Here’s another way to think of it: Most of us would not want to move into a house that’s already been furnished and decorated by someone who doesn’t even know us. It would save a lot of trouble, but we’d miss out on all the pleasure of finding and choosing individual pieces that actually suit us.

When we try to live in it, we’d almost certainly find that there are pieces or even whole rooms that are uncomfortable, or useless, or ugly, or inappropriate, or dangerous, or designed for someone else entirely.  If we have the option to change this, why would we choose to just accept it? It’s our house! It should help us live the life we’re supposed to be leading.

The same is true of ideas, especially ideas about politics and society. We should resist the temptation to move into pre-furnished idea houses. We have to live there, after all. We’ll be much better off if we choose for ourselves what belongs inside. Not because it’s always the most comfortable, but because it helps us live the life we’re supposed to be leading.

We may come to appreciate ideas that once seemed strange or foreign, and we may need to take time to learn the use of unfamiliar concepts; but the point is, we should be examining and evaluating them individually, not just accepting them blandly because they’re part of a suite.

I’m speaking mainly of political and social ideas, but this is true about ideas of what it means to be a Catholic. I profess to believe everything the Church teaches; but I have spent the last few years picking over individual ideas and learning what they’re for and how they fit. I like some better than others. Some are built-in pieces that cannot be shifted, but it turns out some are not.

So while I find it annoying when people make assumptions about me, I have to ask myself if it’s partially my fault. Do I present myself in such a way that it’s easy to assume I swallow ideas wholesale, thoughtlessly, without examining them? Do I make assumptions about myself?

If I always agree with everything all my friends believe, and if I read several publications that always make perfect sense to me every time, and if it only takes me a few minutes to decide that a new, alarming idea isn’t actually all that radical after all . . . I need to look out. I’m getting boxed in, and that needs to change.

Related: