Letter to my younger self: “Don’t be so damned sure.”

My high school yearbook photo What would you like to tell your younger self?

This week, I had a Twitter exchange with @workdayweb, aka Dave, about writing notes to our younger selves. Dave said he got the idea from reading an article in the Virgin Australia inflight magazine. (A quick Google search shows it’s a popular literary device, with many people sharing lessons they’ve learned.) If Dave and I steal like artists, maybe we can build on the idea in some new way that might be interesting or beneficial to others.

There are many lessons I wish I understood and practiced earlier. Here's one.

Dear John,

I’ve been thinking a lot about you (the younger me) quite a bit. In the last few years, I’ve become aware of a trap I wanted to warn you about. I figured I could spare you some awkward moments while helping you discover some useful things more quickly.

Here it is: 

When you think you really know something, especially when you’re feeling smarter than other people, don’t be so damned sure.

Take your strident atheism, for example. It’s easy for you to dismiss other people’s beliefs because you don’t share them. But listen to one of your heroes, David Attenborough, an intelligent champion of science and evolution, describe his uncertainty about religion. Of all people, how could he be uncertain? 

“When I have taken off the top of a termite hill and I’ve seen termites in there, all busy about building walls, caring for the queen....they’re all blind and they haven’t the faintest idea that I am there, watching what they’re doing, because they don’t have those sense organs which would allow them to know that. And I do sometimes feel that maybe I’m lacking in some sense organs, that I don’t know whether there’s anybody else involved...”

So what are you absolutely sure of? Not too long ago, people were sure the earth was in the center of the solar system. It was easy to mock them for their combination of ignorance and certainty. But are you any better? Now we have string theory and the prospect of multiple universes making a mockery of what you thought you knew for sure. Like the termites, you and I don’t even have the sense organs to perceive what that new knowledge implies.

You've scoffed, too, at magic and mysticism, miracles and meditation. They were all ideas that seemed alien to you and described in language you didn’t understand. So you dismissed them. Yet now, for example, fMRI studies show how our brains change in response to meditation,  giving us different capabilities, and finally validating wisdom that monks have been trying to impart to us for 2500 years.

What other wisdom have you dismissed? What else are you sure about but shouldn't be?

Look, I’m proud of what you've learned and what you aspire to learn. Just don’t be smug. Don’t confuse critical thinking with simply being critical of things that are different or that you just don’t understand. Be respectful of other people and their beliefs. And be smart enough to know that there’s a lot you don’t know. 

If you listen more, talk less, and be open to the possibilities, life will be a lot more interesting.

Love you.