The Perils of Passivity

"Do something, even if it's wrong!"

That's bad advice for brain surgeons. But there is a context where doing the wrong thing can be better than doing nothing—the context of mental action.

In thinking, the biggest mistake is also the most common: passivity. The brain is on idle, and the attention wanders. The mouth opens, and words come out, supplied by the mind. The entire process just seems to happen. If what comes out does not make sense, well, better luck next time.

Sometimes, people decide to train the voice so it makes a better impression. They bring breath, voice box, tongue and lips under conscious control, and change bad habits into good habits. Then they open a well trained mouth, produce mellifluous tones, and say the same dumb things.

Mental action begins with comparing things, which leads to classifying things, which makes it possible to see how everything is related. An active mind is always finding more comparisons to make; a passive mind makes only the comparisons it has to. An active mind classifies and reclassifies as new comparisons show new possibilities; a passive mind uses what few classifications it has already learned. The passive mind is not ruled by curiosity, but by inertia.

Passivity means gullibility. It is easy to fool a mind that does not compare things closely to see if there is a difference. It is easy to hoodwink a mind that does not check things out to see if they fit where they claim to fit. People who don't bother to analyze, and get fooled, can conclude that they are weak-minded, so there's no use trying. But of course, if they never used their knees, they'd be weak-kneed.

Complaints about the gullibility of the public are complaints about mental passivity. Politicians say that their magic will work, and those who don't compare or analyze get taken in. If promise were compared with performance, elections would come out differently.

People who feel weak-minded often claim that everyone is weak-minded. Certainty is impossible, they say, or immoral, or pathological. Since they are not mentally confident, they don't believe in mental confidence. When they see it, they feel envy.

The misery of mental passivity is in the experience of being bogged down. The habit of mental drift puts the mind in a fog from which there seems no escape. But the habit of doing nothing can easily be broken by simply doing something, even if it's wrong. If you do something, then the only way to find out if it is right or wrong is to make a comparison. If you take a wild guess, or make a wild judgment, then you have created a problem to solve. You have broken through the inertia. You have taken charge of your mind.

In other words, a way to overcome fear of making mental mistakes is to go ahead and make them, and then correct them, and thus gain experience in thinking. Discovering that mental mistakes can be corrected increases confidence in the mind.

The perils of being wrong are nothing in comparison with the perils of passivity. The thing to fear is not mistakes, but the mental death of lethargy and doubt.

Next Essay Previous Essay Essays Index Home