I remember it vividly. I was sitting in high school English listening to a discussion on Hamlet, when the teacher said to the class: “Question absolutely everything. Never accept anything.” The two sentences stuck with me and have only been reinforced by my now close to four years at Cornell: Be critical. Ask tough questions. Consider who’s talking or writing, what his or her motives are, why they might be unreliable, why they’re not telling you everything. Always ask if what you’re being told is true. And never, ever, accept anything at face value.
Strongly implied by all of these commands is the thought that to not question is to become a dupe. And, given the amount of bull shit we constantly feed ourselves, I’m thankful I at least have a vague notion of what it means to be critical. It’s given me a healthy skepticism in the face of the hyperbolic political rhetoric currently saturating our country, it’s made me appreciate what has now become the lost art of reading a book and it has nearly cured me of the corrosive but hard to resist view that I am the center of the universe — that my problems are more important than any one else’s. After all, to put yourself in another’s position and understand how he or she is feeling requires questioning the notion that life revolves around us — a thought completely contrary to our daily perceptual experience.
But, despite the undeniable benefits of questioning, there reaches a point when it begins to drive you crazy. When is that point you might ask? To give a short answer: when you become unconsciously critical, when questioning becomes compulsive, when the “being critical” you learn in the classroom is ruthlessly applied to your own life. And, unfortunately, the flip side of being trained to ask questions is precisely the risk of not being able or not knowing when to stop.
Obsessive, uncontrollable second-guessing can be so ingrained that often you are not even aware you do it. If you’re like me, it lurks behind any piece of writing or application you hand in.
As I reread an essay, often just hours before it is due, the questioning begins: How could I have spent so much time producing something so decidedly mediocre? If I can’t even write a good essay, what have I learned in college? Why am I bothering to think about graduate school? Am I even good enough to get in to grad school? Well, it probably depends on which grad school. Wait a second, do I even want to go to grad school? Well, most people today need advanced degrees, don’t they? Yes, but who says I should follow what “most people” say? Shouldn’t I choose what to do after college based on what I’m passionate about, not what others are doing? After all, until now I have simply done what’s “expected” of me by society. Isn’t it time to do something on my own? To find my own purpose, to construct my own life?
The questions themselves might seem important. The way they are asked, though, is completely unhelpful: The worry, uncertainty and self-doubt they inspire vacillate between disquieting and unbearable.
Of course, on one level there appears to be a big difference between questioning what other people tell you and questioning yourself. The former leads to healthy skepticism, the latter unleashes the floodgates of neurotic worrying. One is a measured, controlled, rational response. The other an addictive habit — the crack-cocaine of asking questions, if you will. Thinking critically, then, does not seem to be at all the same as neurotically questioning your own life.
But while the outcome might be different, the roots of the two types of questioning are the same. They both indicate a fundamental mistrust of your initial reaction, your initial thought, your initial desire. In that sense, my appreciation of reading and my questioning of political rhetoric are part of the same process from which self-doubt stems. The challenge seems to be to locate the line between the two, mark it with red flags and avoid crossing it. The line, after all, represents the difference between using the mind and having it use you. And if there’s one thing my education has tried to teach me above all else, it is the danger of becoming a dupe.
Harry DiFrancesco is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. Stirring the Pot appears alternate Mondays this semester.