“I think”

I blame middle school teachers. They got us into this mess of a 2016 with its partisan rancor and its echo chambers and its casual hate.

What I mean is I remember very clearly my 7th grade teacher, Ms. K., telling us all not to use “I think” in our essays. I’m sure you were told the same, if your teacher was worth her salt. “I’m reading your essay, so I know these are your thoughts,” she told us. A website I just Googled on this subject puts it clearly:

Avoid “I” statements that weaken your argument. Phrases like “I believe,” “I think,” “The way I see it,” “It seems to me,” and so on, all imply that the statement that follows is only your opinion as opposed to being an argued position or a statement of fact. For example, the following statement is weak:

I believe that preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity.

If you simply leave off the “I” part, the statement is much stronger:

Preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity.

I have to say, looking at this I find “I believe that preservation enables us to retain our cultural identity” a charming formulation and statement. But that’s because I’m no longer the me-centered Manchurian candidate Ms. K. wanted me to be. Let me explain:

The other day I watched some of the Pence/Trump 60 Minutes interview. I put Pence’s name first as wishful thinking; of course he was little more than an extra.


Now, I do admit at times to being in awe of Trump. “I’m much more humble than you would understand” is a staggering feat of irony, and the man did it off the top of his head! I mean hair. Almost equal, in recent examples, is his use of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as personal theme. His is the first truly Seinfeld candidacy.

Of course I was also struck by fear that this man could be president. But more than that, I was surprised to find…is that…yes…it’s pity. I felt like I shouldn’t even be watching this, like it was some private home video of an insane person come to light after a parole hearing.

So, naturally I tried to sculpt this thought into a Facebook status. Because otherwise how would I know I had it? (“I status, therefore I think.”)

Here’s what I came up with:

I don’t just want Trump to lose, I want him to get the mental help he needs.

I meant it sincerely. Watching him I thought, can you imagine what it would be like to live as this person? It must be horrible. He’s keeping himself together with putty and invisible tape, two Tweets away from manically scraping his face off like the man in Poltergeist.

But I hesitated. Should I write “the mental help I think he needs”? I’m not a mental help expert, after all.

I don’t like meanness. I don’t know how long I’ve felt this way. Certainly in high school I was quite mean. I thought it meant I was fabulously acidic like Dorothy Parker. It didn’t. I’ve been mean since then; no doubt some of you reading this could tell me how and where and when. Lately I just don’t have the stomach for it. Even as a witness. I know, I know: I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled, but I just keep seeing Rodney King say, “Can’t we all just get along?” But I hear him with my mother’s voice.

I’m not saying this to apply for sainthood. Truthfully, I wish I were tougher. In-person interactions are slightly different, but internet fights lack closure. You never know when someone might spring another snark on you. Throughout the Democratic primary, I was actually afraid to post my support for Hillary Clinton, because I didn’t want to attract acrimony. I just kept it inside, like one of Nixon’s silent majority.

So the #LoveforLeslieJ thing got to me. Leslie Jones, fabulous comedienne, makes me laugh every time she opens her mouth. And she got chased off of Twitter by racist and vile hate speech.

That’s an extreme example, but the election has highlighted one of the reasons I’d really like to unplug from the web. No one can do anything without it getting shit on by somebody. Yes, this was always true, but the internet has allowed shitters to find each other and shit loudly and proudly and turn their shit into clickbait which then convinces people who just a moment before were perfectly intestinally-balanced that now they too have to shit.

Not all shitting is bad, of course. Some things need a lot of it. But here’s one example. Talented guy Mark Duplass gave a talk at a film festival where he said that aspiring filmmakers have “no excuse” to not make movies on the weekends with their friends. The technology is inexpensive now; go do it. Make something.

That’s a pretty harmless statement, but when a friend reposted it a while ago, someone I don’t know wrote an impassioned attack, saying it was tone deaf to the working class, who don’t have the privilege of weekends or time to think up ideas and stuff like that.

I thought, really? He was speaking at a film festival. He was considering his audience. No one was there in sleeping bags with a cart full of plastic bottles.

Let me briefly make a Pollyanna point: It’s easy to be against. It’s easy to attack and knock down. It’s harder to bring things into the world, whether they are big budget Ghostbuster movies or simple thoughts. I think, but I could be making it up, that Anne Sexton used to post a quotation above her typewriter about not letting the silence win. All I could find was this bit of her poetry which I am going to take out of context and suit to my needs: comparing silence to a white bird, she says it comes each day to “peck at the black eyes and the vibrating red muscle of my mouth.”

It makes me think, as I’m sure it did her, of the bit in Cinderella where the birds comes and peck out the eyes of the ugly stepsisters, which got left out of Disneyworld.

On the other hand, while poking around “silence quotation” searches, I came across different versions of the proverbial “speak only if it improves upon silence.”

Of course, we tend to have different criteria for what improves upon silence. The three gates is a more defined system: is it true? is it kind? is it necessary?

Yesterday, I tried out a version of this post on someone. Her reaction was lukewarm. As I then held my own draft up to the light, I could see a thinness here, a discoloration there. I began to doubt how much I really believed. So, I thought, this will be another for the scrap pile. These entries get fewer and farther between as I lose, for better or worse?, the assurance of different convictions that I had some years ago. The older I get, the more I just want to write “I think” and leave the rest off. “I think” is the statement. Or, more accurately, “I am thinking.”

I’d welcome that development on my Facebook newsfeed. People could post the same articles, but would be limited to that one caption, so at least I could believe that we all still had gears turning and weren’t completely stuck in our ways, using blogs and pundits to find different ways to proudly advertise our suspended animation.

Because that was going to be my original point, my rhetorical coup, to suggest that we need to lavish a little more attention on “I think” these days. We ought to reintroduce it into our writing, our texting, our talking, our statusing. Because I think we have lost touch with the idea that, as our grammarians chided, much of the time what we’re stating is, in fact, “only” our opinion.

This would not be a panacea. Note: the full Trump quotation is actually “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand” (emphasis mine). But it’s my proposal for a first step toward increasing civility in our discourse.

Yet the temptation is to write things as brashly and splashily as possible; the trend is for pith, not pity. I’m part of it. I get hung up more than the average bear on how many likes or views or comments something I write gets, when I know I ought to be writing for…silence, really.

I had an idea the other day to make a joke about an unsocial network, where you write things but are guaranteed that no one will ever read them, but then I realized I was just describing a journal.

So if it’s going to be public, at least I ought to be able to write in a way that I would accept a reaction of silence with perfect equanimity. I should take the pleasure in the work, not the fruits of the work. The act of figuring out the idea through writing it. Learning by writing: a buzz phrase in education I’m just picking up on, but practice.

Two things ultimately saved this meager essay from the cutting room floor.

1) There has been much talk in my family lately of children. My sister is pregnant, which is part of it, and my father is frequently offering me a rationale for keeping the human race going, is another. He is well aware of the counterarguments, and often quotes Dylan in “Masters of War”:

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world

Every time I see someone’s well-intended work or wish smeared or tarred because it didn’t cover all the human bases at the same time, I say a quick prayer of thanks that nothing I’ve done has ever attracted much attention. Someone would find it sexist. Someone would find it racist. Someone would find it allergenic. Someone would find it just bad. And maybe they would all have their points.

But I don’t want to feel the fear to bring writing into the world.

2) Using etymonline.com, I tried to trace the origin of the word “think.” It was not as simple as I’d hoped, but it turns out the word has the same root as “thank.” And in a rare moment of etymological poetry, the “thank” entry states thus: “related phonetically to think as song is to sing.”

Thank is to think as song is to sing. These things that we think, then, are thanks. Or they could be, or ought to be, or deserve our effort to try to be.

That’s just too good not to break the silence to share.

I thank you. I think you.