How to Question the World

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats describes his mother’s approach to his childhood misbehavior in school. When Coats would get in trouble his mother would not just take away his privileges, she would make him reflect on why he got in trouble by making him write about his behavior, his thoughts, and his decisions. Describing his childhood he wrote,


“When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson?” The questions Coats was writing about at a young age were self reflective questions. Rather than letting him brood and be in trouble, his mother forced him to organize his thoughts and put them down on paper. The act of reflecting is important, but without organizing thoughts and creating a coherent idea behind our thoughts, they simply whip around our head in a slightly chaotic manner. In his book 59 Seconds Richard Wiseman writes the following about the benefits of writing versus thinking or speaking,


“Thinking can often be somewhat unstructured, disorganized, and even chaotic.  In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution.  In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion, but writing provides a more systematic solution-based approach.”


I have found that I often underestimate how intelligent young children are. I am constantly surprised by what toddlers remember and by the connections they are able to make. I would not have thought that a reflective exercise could be so impactful for a young child in elementary school, but Coats describes how these questions and how writing in particular shaped who he grew up to be. He continued in his book,


“Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself.”


Writing and reflecting helped Coats organize his thoughts, but it also built a habit where he thought about his actions and his thoughts, and learned to question himself. Coats explains that he now gives his son the same writing tasks when he is in trouble. He says that he does not expect these exercise to change his son’s behavior as they did not necessarily change his behavior as a boy, but that he hopes these writing exercises will build a habit of reflection and self-awareness into his son’s life.


Coats grew up in a household where he was forced to question himself, his behavior, and his thoughts and beliefs. He was not raised in a household that told him that he was already special or great, and throughout his book he reflects on how he felt, why he felt certain ways at certain times, and how his thoughts and emotions drove him to act one way or another. He questioned how society was organized after making strong observations and recognizing that the systems in existence today are the results of real decisions made by real people. Often we go through our lives unaware of our impulses and beliefs, believing that things are the way they are out of some sort of divine providence or simply because they could never be a different way. Coats was raised to recognize that there was no way things should be, and from a young age developed a habit of asking why.


What is important to recognize from the his quote is that he is asking why and asking deep questions not just about society or about others, but about himself. When we ask why others error and make poor decisions, we are in a way placing ourselves above them. We assume that we are correct and on the right side of the moral divide, and then cast judgement on others and point out how flawed they are. Coats encourages us not to sympathize with our own self and not to spend too much time rationalizing our own beliefs, but to truly study and be aware of our thoughts, so that we can be more honest with ourselves about why we believe what we believe.

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