Over the last two decades, I have spent a great deal of time working with and teaching medical students. Extraordinary sponges of knowledge, these eager scholars emerge from the dark cave of incessant testing and classwork (dominating their first two years of medical school) only to be bleary and blinded by the deep complexity of the patients in their charge. Sated with knowledge, but bereft of experience, they find themselves going down abstruse rabbit holes of inquiry, entertaining inconceivably long lists of diagnoses, and performing the most contortionist of exam maneuvers. After emerging from the patient’s room (usually fifteen minutes later than desirable), students find themselves dazed yet delighted. They are finally practicing medicine.
What unfolds next is a torrent of semi-organized information offered with pressured speech and intermittent eye contact while hands fumble through countless papers of chicken-scratched notes. As we begin to entertain the crux of the visit—what is the matter and what should we do about it—their eyes turn glassy with a faraway look. Drawing from the recesses of neurally-stored knowledge, they offer a tangled web of possibility and impossibility. Somehow they are no longer in the room with me, but lost in the book-stacks of memory. Stuttering, stammering, and blushing, they finish—uncertain with how they did, but glad it is finally over.
That is when I look at them and ask, “Tell me, what do you really think is going on?”
For a moment, they look perplexed. But then they relax and begin to truly think. They consider what the patient said and looked like, what makes sense and what doesn’t. In their ease, facts seem to sort themselves out a little better. Clarity arrives. Confidence emerges. At last, they are finally practicing medicine. They are beginning to think.
Medical students aren’t the only ones who need to be reminded to think. We all do. In an age of unending information and unremitting obligation, we are often just trying to keep up with what is going on, much less what it all means. But therein lies the problem. Our age has stopped discerning. T.S. Eliot once asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Somehow, we have forgotten that possessing information does not mean that we have knowledge. And having knowledge does not mean that we have wisdom. We must strive not only to be smart but to be wise.
When I was training in medical school, my senior resident (and extraordinary mentor) told me about his three-year-old boy, Jack, who at times would stand with furrowed brow and gritted teeth as he vigorously tapped his temple, chanting, “Think! Think! Think!” We all need to think, think, think.
Today, to open the papers or scroll online for the events of the day is to be confronted with the unthinkable. Our lives are littered by ideologies and theories that are so fatuous, so laughable that the discerning mind could simply pop the balloon with one well-placed question. Instead, however, we are caught up in guilt, in fear, in uncertainty over truth. We surrender our thinking faculties to the tyranny of feelings. But we are better than that. The whole point of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes is that everyone in town was so cowed by their own self-doubt that they feared backlash were they to admit that the emperor was indeed not wearing any clothes. Their feelings and fears blinkered them to the facts. Yet among them stood a little boy with furrowed brow tapping his temple insisting the emperor was stark naked. Soon, everyone nodded in assent because the child was brave enough to tell it like it is. Think, think, think.
Winston Churchill reminded that “the truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
And G.K. Chesterton, when confronted with the self-satisfied sophistry of a cultural radical asking, “Who knows that two and two do not make five in the planet Jupiter?” answered without flinching, “I do.” As Fr. James Schall would remind, it is “the function of the ordinary man to say that he did know certain things.”
Today, let’s do better. Don’t simply swallow information whole—chew on it (or as one wise thinker quipped, “Keep you mind open, but not so open that your brains fall out.”) Discern. Take a step back from theory and abstraction, ideology and political correctness and ask yourself, “What do I really think is going on?” After all, we do know certain things.
Think, think, think.