When I was in college the first time around, I liked to debate issues. If I could find a willing partner, like say Phil Chapman (or say J these days), I could spend hour upon hour discussing issues as disparate as religion, politics, and who made the best beer. I have always enjoyed bandying about ideas. But I sort of remember some people not wanting to participate in my game. I remember my father telling me once that I was "on my soapbox, again." Perhaps I was overbearing in my enthusiasm for a subject. I suspect that I had learned just enough to speak with some authority on some thing, usually just enough to regurgitate the ideas of others, but doing so with some confidence that people thought I knew what I was talking about. Or I had opinions that I found so inherently reasonable and with which I was sure no reasonable person could disagree. As J has once claimed to do, I would often "pile on" (although unlike J, I did so unapologetically). I would load the discussion with everything, including the kitchen sink, until it was so clogged that no amount of logic, thought or Liquid Plumber would ever unravel the mess. Scarcely any of my "arguments" ever dealt with anything more than cursory "facts" and winning an argument was largely a product of having the larger, more dominant personality than my sparring partner.
I don't know how long I was insufferable, but I suspect it was much longer than I would be comfortable with. I believe I left a lot of people with the impression that I thought highly of myself, that I thought I knew more than they did, and that I didn't respect them for what they knew or thought. I didn't get that it wasn't a compliment when Melinda said of me once, "you don't suffer fools well."
I found some people's ideas of me to be totally foreign to who I thought I was. Probably would be wisest to say that neither of us was exactly right.
During my marriage, I was bereft of intelligent discourse. After my divorce, I went through a period when I just didn't want to discuss much. I began to listen to people, simply because it took too much energy to talk. When I returned to school, I recall being quite frustrated about learning new things. I hadn't a lot of practice truly investigating the deeper aspects of issues, and any lack of knowledge seemed insurmountable, and made me feel stupid. I wasn't the smartest person in the room anymore and if I wasn't, what was I? The process of learning can sometimes be arduous and often there is a vast ocean of delay between learning and absorbing, integrating, and understanding. I didn't understand the process and I was fighting it.
There is a defining moment that happens to you in graduate school. It is a moment that I have heard repeated by student after student. It is the moment when you realize that for all the years you have spent studying a very specialized area, you haven't begun to scratch the surface of the things that could be known. You realize that you can't speak with authority on much. You realize that you aren't nearly as smart as you gave yourself credit for. It is a sudden and overwhelming sense of smallness. Everything that happens after that moment is defined by it. You find yourself not proclaiming mastery of subjects, but cautioning that we should recognize our limitations.
I think the day that happened to me was the day I stopped being insufferable. Oh, it's true that I love to debate current events, and I have never been shy about offering an opinion on various topics. But if you will notice, most of those strenuous opinions are on topics that are outside my "area of expertise". They are my "just for fun" issues. That is the only place I can comfortably be insufferable.
Significant Digits For Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017
4 hours ago