How Our Innate Desire for Intellectual Autonomy Can Drive Us to Hunger, Isolation, and Distrust

Guest Author: Stephanie Butron

The purpose of this article is to emphasize that there is light at the end of the tunnel, as the saying goes. Just like there is peace at the end of a messy and perfectly imperfect story. Peace must be the light because without it our decisions to question something, to believe in something, or to conform to something would lead to nothing but overwhelmed feelings, messiness, and imperfections. Since light can’t exist without the dark, I think it is safe to say that peace can’t exist without the dark. In one context of my life, peace means having the willingness and ability to think for myself in spite of social, emotional, and financial pressures. In other words, I don’t want to be overly dependent on others when it comes to forming my beliefs. For example, if my purpose is to stay on budget for this month, the next right decisions could be to politely say ‘no’ to things that were not in my budget or include room in my budget for the unexpected or find deals that could cover my basic needs. Staying true to your purpose can sometimes mean staying in the dark a little longer, but the light at the end of the tunnel will start shining a little brighter.

The question at issue: What is the next right thing to do? More specifically, what is the next right thing to do with respect to your purpose. For instance, if my purpose is to engage in a genuine connection with another human being, the next right thing to do could be to listen for the meaning behind the other person’s words, follow my intuition, and be curious about the other person’s life. Curiosity in itself could break down old defenses in ourselves and in someone else. On the other hand, our defense mechanisms can sometimes prevent us from listening intently, following our intention, and being willing to draw insight from our experiences. The key is not to eliminate your defense mechanisms but to understand why you are making unfruitful decisions in order to avoid making more purposeful ones. What tactics do you use to push a conversation away from topics tied to your goal? What emotion encourages you to bully another person when you are being kept accountable? What about the current interaction brings up irrelevant thoughts? Self-reflection is like looking into a mirror. We must look beyond the surface and examine our goals, challenges, beliefs, consequences of our decisions, evidence we have available, our judgements, and point of view. As a result of this examination, you will gain a clearer understanding of who you are and what you aspire to become. More importantly, you will upgrade your answer to a wiser ‘next right thing to do’.

My obvious assumption is that our drive for intellectual autonomy leads to hunger, isolation, and distrust. Intellectual autonomy means to be committed to think for yourself by using the best reasoning you are capable of, with awareness of the bigger picture, as stated by Dr. Gerald Nosich, senior fellow at the Foundation of Critical Thinking. In order to use the “best reasoning you are capable of”, you have to start somewhere. Your best reasoning right now may not be all you are ever capable of, but it might be the best you are capable of right now. For this reason, take a step back and don’t answer, “what is the next right thing to do?”, just yet. Ask yourself, “what is the question asking?”, “what does it call for?”, and “what would I have to do in order to answer it?”. On a more personal note, I chose to live in a homeless shelter and avoided going home years ago. Going home meant avoiding family members who did not listen to connect with me but listened to prove their own peeves against me. The next right thing to do, at the time, was to remove myself from the toxic situation. Avoiding them was not enough to tame those triggers. The next right thing to do called for the courage to change my beliefs. I needed to let go of the shame of being labeled homeless, the shame in asking for help, and the shame of being behind my peers career-wise. In order to decide what the next right thing to do was, I needed to be willing to let go of my assumption that I would never escape the struggle without the people who were always there, despite their toxic behaviors. When I let go of that assumption, the next right thing to do was to move out. It was like removing a tight harness around my entire body. My muscles felt a tingling feeling because I never felt them so relaxed. I started to believe the results of my own self-created, life experiments.

Just like we have to start somewhere, we also have to end somewhere. The area beyond where it ends are the consequences of our actions, the results of our reasoning. The decision to move out was the next right thing to do. The area beyond my decision to move out was how to move out. What would be the next right thing to do? Assess the costs and benefits of the options you identified. Sometimes, you have to accept the unwelcome consequences of the position you take. For instance, if you decide to move out, there are a few options: Ask a friend for a couch, enter the human services system, park your car in the Walmart parking lot, or pitch a tent under a bridge. At this point, you may not be capable of assessing all of the costs that come with entering the system or freeloading off a friend or the benefits of having a free meal three times a day until you try it. For this reason, the “next right thing to do” would be to just try it. It is like thinking through the scientific method. The hypothesis was my conclusion about the way a situation might turn out and waiting to see if my hypothesis will be confirmed or disconfirmed, through experimentation. The information I needed for a better “next right thing to do” was the result of my experimentation.

The desire for intellectual autonomy did lead me to hunger, isolation, and distrust. The costs of my experiments were admitting myself to a hospital for food, feeling lonely and unsafe. Surviving was at the center of my point of view. Everything I thought about was from the point of view of a survivor’s mind — my superhero mind. The benefit was to know that as long as I am breathing, I can still do the next right thing. So, take a long, deep breath and look ahead of you, where you can see it in the distance. That is your purpose.

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