Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That arc does not bend independently of human action. It needs to be directed and guided, sometimes re-routed, by a nation’s common conscious as we continually refine and deepen our notion of justice. How can we ensure the bending of that arc toward justice if we never pause to examine its trajectory?
The examination of this trajectory must begin on an individual level by thinking harder. To think harder is to recognize that no human exists entirely independent of the world around them. We constantly absorb the world around us through observation, through the storage of memories and through interactions with others. Simultaneously, we are being absorbed by the world around us as we are an instance of life within it, a part of the history of a place and a part of other peoples’ observations and memories. This constant absorption is a necessary and often beautiful fact of humanity, as the way in which we absorb and are absorbed by the world around us is how we form communities, build societies and find a place in the world.
Yet it is when we become too comfortable in the world around us that we don’t think about the paradoxes and enigmas within that world. When we don’t think, we lose our grounding both individually and as a nation. We tend to think about things that we value, whether consciously or subconsciously. Moreover, just thinking about something imbues value on that thing in our lives. When our comfort in the structures of the world around us prevents us from thinking, we are unable to place value on what is important and essential. So we lose our purpose of bending that arc toward justice and suddenly it becomes easy, even natural, to trivialize what we should value.
In America, we continue to develop a history of trivializing human life. Slavery, perhaps, is the greatest trivialization of human life in our history. Today, we value objects over human life in our obstinate refusal to detach gun ownership from the American identity. We value cultural isolation and constancy over human life when we reduce decisions about offering asylum to refugees to decisions about economics and the capacity of our healthcare system.
The paradox, however, is that in the cultural and historical contexts where thinking harder is more of a necessity, thinking harder also tends to be much more difficult. Today, technology presents an ongoing opposition to thinking harder because it provides a substitute for thought in moments of waiting. Technology makes it far more difficult not to be absorbed by the world around us because that world is now one we can access anytime. Technology can also normalize the very absurdities in our world, which thinking harder may help us to identify. For example, apps like Tinder normalize our absurd tendency to trivialize the pursuit of love with our un-purposeful attitudes towards relationships.
Forty-five years ago, Robert M. Pirsig eloquently expressed our need to think harder in his classic philosophical novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”: “Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for,” Pirsig wrote.
That channel deepening is still called for today. So think harder. Think about the small, seemingly trivial things in your world because it is possible, even likely, that what we trivialize as a society may be essential. Think about the big, grand things in your world that seem too complicated to understand because complexities can sometimes be untangled with thought. Think about the people in your world, think about yourself and the purpose of what you do. Think about love. And as you keep thinking, your movements within that world will change. As we do this collectively, slowly but surely, the arc will bend toward justice.
Sharon Spaulding is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org