We Enjoy the Comfort of Opinion without the Discomfort of Thought

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 06-11-24

I recently rediscovered a great quote from President John F. Kennedy. It was during Lehigh University’s commencement, where I was observing my daughter Emma’s graduation. The original quote is from Kennedy’s commencement speech at Yale University on June 11th, 1962, and was echoed by Lehigh’s President Joseph Helble in his remarks.

The core of the quote that was shared is this: “We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

This is one of those lines that can really strike you as profound and timeless. Here’s the full context of his remarks around that quote:

“For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

“Thinking requires effort and responsibility. This means that the prejudices of the present must not be allowed to obscure the truth of the past. Nor must we ever assume that the truth is necessarily in the middle of opposing viewpoints. Nor must we see merit in both sides of a question simply because they are opposed. Nor must we expect that the truth will always be found by splitting the difference between two opposite ideas.”

In President Helble’s remarks, he added something equally profound and timeless:

“Don’t feel informed without actually being informed.”

What are the implications of this premise? First, and most timely, is how we consume information. Many people get the majority of their news from social media these days. That’s not a bad way to find out things fast, or just to get curious about new ideas, but it is fraught with low levels of depth and integrity. The power of Russian false information campaigns alone should scare anyone out of complacency. In a period when trust both in government and media are at historic lows, the draw to such sources is compelling but dangerous. “Do your own research” does not mean going deeper down the rabbit hole but using a combination of trusted sources and critical thinking to really understand things like “does that sound reasonable?” To often, the less reasonable it sounds the more traction it gets because people want to be part of sussing out a hidden truth, but that can lead to self-deception.

A second implication is the use of AI. Just getting answers from ChatGPT or Claude can be efficient and fill you with confidence, as their responses don’t come back with self-doubt or a lot of qualifiers. Think critically about what AI is good at and not good at, how reliable its answers may or may not be, and whether we want the most average answer or we’re actually looking for unique insight. AI without critical thinking can be dangerous, but powerful when put together.

Problem solving is another example where it is all about the discomfort of thought. When we race through problem solving, often to simply avoid that discomfort of not (yet) knowing the answer, we find truth, new insight, or creative solutions. When done well, problem solving is meant to force us into the discomfort of thought, and allow us to engage the problem with the best of what we bring to the challenge?

How do we practice Kennedy’s challenge to us?

Developing a mastery of the “discomfort of thought” begins with practice. I wrote this article for the primary reason of forcing myself to think harder about Kennedy’s statement. That’s actually why I do most of my writing. But by any means, whether debate or reflection or writing, practicing to think hard about important ideas will make you stronger. But like any muscle, left alone it will atrophy. This is why deeply experienced people are just as likely to be blinded by the “comfort of opinion.”

Ask yourself questions such as “how did I come to believe this?”, “how might someone else view the same situation?”, and “what may be an alternative explanation?” are good thought starters, whether in dialogue or reflection.

And finally, challenge yourself about the consequences of what you believe. You may believe that a certain BBQ place is the best there is. The only consequence of that is that you may miss out on something better. Of course to some that may be a tragedy, but it is not likely of that much consequence. There are many things where you may be uncertain of what is true and right, but if the consequences are low, then it may not be worth the investment. However, with high consequences such as your health, your career, your mental health, how you vote, or how you raise your kids, then you owe it to your decision if not yourself to follow Kennedy’s challenge.

As Tom Hanks reminds us in A League of Their Own, “it’s supposed to be hard… the hard is what makes it great.” He might have been talking about baseball, but it’s pretty good rule of thumb to live by. Do not enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.