04 September 2008

the reverse-commute and argumentative clarity

Every morning, just before sun-rise, I climb into my car and begin my reverse-commute.

You see, I live 1.5 miles from downtown. I work 15 miles from downtown. So while most of the rest of the city comes in from the suburbs to do their work in the city, I head out of the city and into the suburbs to do whatever it is I do.

The reverse-commute suits me. I have always been something of a contrarian and being able to go against the flow every day is something that I really enjoy. I usually start really smiling about 5 miles from my office, when traffic coming from the wealthy, sprawling Northwestern suburbs grinds to a standstill heading into town. I nod smugly and continue towards work at a crisp 70mph. (Photo from Mike Kahn/Green Stock Media…)

(I could probably identify a dozen other places where I am living in the “reverse-commute”. We bought a house in an old neighborhood (that is still far from gentrified) and got less space and paid more money than if we had just gone out to the exurbs. I tend to lean left politically even though I come from a very right-leaning pedigree. I challenge “religious” ideas to the point that I often have to remind myself what it is I believe. I work in the oil/energy industry and I value environmental protection. On and on it could go…)

I think it was in high school that I was first classified as someone who was a little different. Our PAL class (Peer Assistance Leadership – a pseudo-volunteer group that mentored underprivileged children) of about 70 took a test of sorts to classify the larger group into sub-groups, such as “Leader” or “Encourager”. All of the potential results seemed very positive. Or so I thought.

Reviewing the results as a group, the teacher announced that one student tested out to a different classification than all of the others. Apparently, my test revealed that I was the “Challenger” of the group. She said that I would rarely be satisfied with the way things were, I would question everything including successful practices to make sure nothing was better, and I would go against the grain just to see how other people reacted and to find what that approach offered.

She nailed me. But instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt empowered, as though these results legitimized my behavior as an important part of a functioning society.

My education at the University of Texas at Austin only reinforced this way of thinking. Ah, a liberal arts education is a glorious thing. I was taught that learning required careful study and examination of facts. No big surprise there. The light bulb went on when I was shown how arguments can actually lead to greater clarification. I was taught to take a side and argue it out. At the end of it, I would know whether the idea was valid. So I wrote papers that bordered on absurd and took positions in discussions that didn’t reflect my true beliefs at all. And in those moments, the Truth within me was clarified.

Apartheid - Oppressive but beneficial?
American Civil war - Kansas started it?
Light Rail - Booming success or boondoggle?
Religion - Tool of the weak?
Suburbs - Prosperously Disastrous?
China - Communism as a cultural necessity?

There are days that I still find myself as a Challenger. I am currently debating the sanity of a certain political nomination, wondering why Christian men always want “adventure”, and revisiting the reason I blog. Some of these arguments take place with others. Many of the ideas I simply argue out with myself.

After all, my reverse-commute is so smooth and stress-free that I can afford to let my mind drift a little bit.

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