When I was little, I had my fair share of sass and spunk, which often came with the elementary school girl package. I had one consistent mark on my report cards: “talked too much.” Talked too much to peers, talked too much while the teacher was talking, asked too many questions. It was my one true form of disobedience.
What was so important to me about talking was proving to people around me—my family, my teachers, mostly all adults—that I was capable and knowledgeable and ought to be spoken to as such. The best was being asked what I thought of things. As a little girl, to think that my opinions on the world made a difference was a big deal.
So my grandfather, recognizing that my smartass sensibilities had developed much too prematurely, really enjoyed riling me up. He knew I thought I was smart. Someone had to deflate the ego. He’d approach me out of the blue and say, “Sammi, why do boats float?” or, “Sammi, why do planes stay up in the air? Aren’t they way too heavy for that?”
Being around eight years old meant my knowledge of physics was markedly subpar, but boy if I didn’t try insanely hard to make sense of those questions. “It’s called buoyancy, Papa,” I’d say. “It’s physics that does it.”
“You’re not explaining anything, though,” he’d retort. “How does the physics work?”
“The water just holds the boat because…” I’d sputter. “Because there’s so much water in the ocean!”
“Sammi, really. Why can’t you just admit that you don’t know? Just say ‘I don’t know.’ It’s better to do that than just talk and talk about something you have no idea about.”
But I didn’t believe him back then. I thought that if I tried hard enough, I could make talking about things I don’t know still go the way I wanted. If I kept talking and tried to show off my capability through conversation, even if it was about something I didn’t know, I would still be seen as smart.
This story sticks out to me as I’m sitting here writing my first real opinion article.
The idea of the Opinions section is daunting to me. I don’t need to tell you the pressure of putting your ideas on a page with the knowledge that they are completely subject to any amount of condemnation and denunciation.
The struggle was very real for me to think of what to write for this first piece. I started out feeling excited (albeit a little tentative), racking my brain for my passions and issues I think need to be raised. A few days pass by and I’m getting this sinking feeling as my mind passes over each inkling of an idea. “That would be too cheesy, it’s obviously been done before,” I think, or, “I can’t make such a great case for why I feel that way about that.” Why is it so hard to think of something that I really care about to write? It’s not like I don’t have opinions—right?
It could be that I’m apathetic, or lazy, or some combination of the two. But from what I can tell, my inability is more due to fear than anything else. It’s debatable which option is worse, but I’m willing to hope that the latter is easier to improve.
The prospect of writing would have been a lot less scary to my younger self. I used to be so enthusiastic about arguing and making my thoughts heard, putting myself out there so people could think I was smart. What happened to me? Sure, rationality comes with age. You can’t really argue about something you don’t know much about. But I do know about some things.
Unlike younger me, I’m convinced that of the things I know about, there’s really no way for me to have a full picture. That’s what makes me the most nervous in any kind of debate: being ignorant or less informed than my opponent. Of course it’s somewhat senseless to imagine a viewpoint that is all-encompassing and without bias, but I’m always worried that my interlocutor has the wider lens on the situation.
This is something I’ve found especially true at Wesleyan. The innumerable perspectives all over this campus are what makes it great, but overwhelming nonetheless. Not to mention, students here have opinions out the wazoo (or at least, many say that they do). In a new place, with entirely new people who have had totally different experiences than I have had, I fear I’ve got a lot to lose in any kind of sensitive conversation, be it respect or perceived agreeableness.
Lastly, I’d say one of my biggest fears is not having anything interesting or important to add to a conversation by adding my opinions. It’s great to be in a discussion among those who share your ideals and fight for the same causes, but it’s sometimes hard to see the point of participating when you know you’re not advancing any solution. In some ways, it’s inviting in the realization that your purpose and ability to do what you believe in is very limited—a pretty sobering idea, especially for this demographic.
I think if anything, my new self-awareness of my difficulty developing opinions among others is the start of getting better at it. I’d say the goal is to reclaim a childish attitude when it comes to opinions. Sure, children have a natural egotism problem that derives from a lack of awareness. More often than not, a little kid is the center of their home life and their parents’ lives, subsequently making them the center of their own life. The world revolves around them; it should make sense that they find their opinions, their curiosities, and their thoughts to be of utmost importance and that they have the dire need to share them.
So there is definitely something to be gained from valuing one’s opinions like they would have as a child, especially for someone like me, who has plenty of doubts in her credibility. Combining the rationality gained from going through adolescence with the nerve and self-importance of childhood seems to me like the best way of gaining confidence in this area.
Hopefully with more time spent here, my inhibitions towards speaking my thoughts will slowly go away, even if this means putting out ideas that aren’t entirely informed or even a little ignorant. This time around, though, it’ll be a lot easier to say “I don’t know.”
Sammi Aibinder is a member of the Class of 2018.