A few months ago, I came across a photo on @8-bitfiction’s Twitter account. The text, “Are your opinions your own or are they borrowed, without thought or scrutiny, as you have been too lazy to form your own?” was superimposed onto a graphic of a girl—mouth agape and eyes fixed, as if to throw shade at all who dared to read it. The image’s simple, brutally honest message affected me in a very personal way, and judging from all the favorites and retweets it got, it must have struck a chord with lots of other people, too.
Whenever I have conversations with friends—especially about important social issues—I am gripped by the need to sound smart. A million anxious thoughts and opinions float around in my head, the majority focused on how I can contribute to the discussion rather than on what I think, or might be able to contribute: What if I say something stupid? Or worse, What if they think I’m lazy and don’t know enough to say anything about this topic?
This has been the case ever since I was little. I dreaded the times when people would ask me for my thoughts on things. As a kid who suffered from a combination of outright awkwardness and low self-esteem, I was afraid to make mistakes. Expressing an opinion would open my thoughts to criticism, and being proven wrong seemed like the ultimate form of failure. At the time, failure was equal to defeat, and so I played it safe and developed bland reactions to everything.
My parents picked up on this, and would complain that they were tired of hearing the same response whenever they asked me questions. I suppose they were right—the most trivial questions like: “Where do you want to eat for dinner, Gaby?” or, “What’s your favorite book?” always warranted the same three-word response from me—I don’t know. In fairness, I was sure of two things at the time: my favorite food (chocolate) and my favorite color (light blue). Other than that, I was an incredibly indecisive eight-year-old.
My indecisiveness was the reason that I was always on the receiving end of lectures on how it was ideal to have an opinion. Due to my family’s constant prodding, I grew up thinking that an opinion was sacred–that it was a privilege to be asked to share mine since there were many people not fortunate enough to have their opinions valued by others. But for some reason, as much as I wanted to have my own say on things, I couldn’t fight the fear that I might be called out by my peers for being wrong when it came to #realtalk on social issues, or for being too self-absorbed when it came to conversations about my interests.
From elementary school, through to my freshman year in high school, my behavior evolved from not voicing my opinions, to piecing together the opinions of others and passing them off as my own. It was much easier to latch onto the opinions and interests of my friends than it was to exert time and actual brain juice thinking up my own. While I felt widely more accepted, I also felt like a fake: a fake, confused, opinion-sucking leech.
In the latter years of high school, I found that I could use the internet as a tool to access an even wider variety of views and opinions that had already been validated by others. Social commentary, op-eds, and features were right within my reach! It was like I had my own personal library of opinions free for the taking. Being exposed to all of these reference materials got me to snap out of my previously neutral state and look at the possibilities that having an opinion could open up. It was the right time, too—in the current age of social media and audience-generated content, it’s become even harder not to have an opinion.
Scrolling through the gold mines that are the comment sections became one of my favorite pastimes. It wasn’t so hard to contribute to discussions, since I could easily go on the internet and take someone’s thoughts on a controversial article or video without even having to watch, much less make an effort to figure out what I thought of it. My newfound ease in conversation, gave me the false sense that I was thinking for myself. Finally, I could sound like an intellectual and participate in people’s conversations about pressing issues, without making an effort to get to the core of an issue.
My excessive bookmarking seemed perfectly justifiable at first, given the TL;DR culture that many have grown accustomed to. But alas! The information overload eventually took over my thinking, and the so-called “intellectual” conversations I had with my friends began to play out something like this:
Friend: Girl, did you watch Amandla Stenberg’s video on cultural appropriation?
Me: Not yet, but I read a reply to some dude’s comment on this really great writer’s analysis of it! It was so good! Hold on, I’ll try to find it and send it to you!
As more and more of my conversations played out in this manner, I began to feel uneasy. I’d known that my opinion-forming process wasn’t substantial enough for a while when I stumbled across 8-bitfiction’s tweet—it couldn’t have come at a better time. I had to admit to myself that I really was too lazy to form and voice my own opinions. All of my so-called “views” were watered-down versions of what I’d read, filtered further until I decided they were OK to rehash to other people.
The internet is great: It allows us to access a wide variety of views and opinions, but I got caught up in the rush to absorb as many things as possible and ended up not knowing how to process most of it. Becoming a registered voter in time for my country’s upcoming elections, and having a little over a year separating me from the “adult” world of employment and dinnertime conversation on politics (*insert retching here*) got me thinking about how I need to start being an active member of society. Being active involves having the initiative to research issues and have my own say on them. I’m 19 and in the middle of my third year of college, perhaps it’s time I accepted that it’s my responsibility to become a CITIZEN OF THE WORLD!
Accepting the responsibility to participate more is tricky. It’s daunting to put an opinion out there for all to analyze, it’s also something I had to face eventually. While I know it’s perfectly fine to use other people’s thoughts to inform my own views, what I’ve been lacking are basic principles that I can stand by no matter what, to act as anchors for my thought. Right now, my anchors are mostly centered on basic human ethics—equality above all: To simply be as good a person as possible, and to treat others as they want to be treated. I’m also navigating the confusion sprung by all the material I was reading by writing down my initial thoughts, and building from there. I try to allow everything I’ve taken in to simmer before I begin processing it.
In August, I was given the opportunity to write a column for the youth section of a major daily newspaper in my country. Although I was initially iffy about taking it, given my history with opinions, I decided to power through and take it as a challenge. One of my first articles was about my obsession with a local teleserye (soap opera). In it, I explained why I thought the show was a hit, exploring elements like the chemistry between the two leads and the novelty of the plot. Though I had second thoughts about whether to come out and declare my love for the teleserye, I managed to find the strength to submit the piece anyway. It was the first time I’d spoken so openly about a subject that many of my peers feel is corny and not worth their time—and on a national scale, no less—but having it out there felt good. What affected me the most was that that after it was published, random people started tweeting me to thank me for writing it, even commenting to say that they shared my opinion. An opinion that came entirely from me.
I’ve been studying Gabriel Marcel in my philosophy class, and one of his main points is that philosophical investigation is an never-ending journey that involves a lot of courage. In The Mystery of Being, Marcel writes about the tricky matter of being and remaining oneself: “There are always gaps in our personal experience and our personal thought, and there exists a permanent decision to stop these up with ready-made developments borrowed from some body of pre-existing doctrine.” Differently put: We are all works in progress, and though it can be tempting to fall back on pre-existing views, if you aren’t brave enough to go out and have an opinion—regardless of whether or not it’ll be universally accepted—then you won’t be living as fully as you can.
Do I feel like I’m fully living right now because I’ve decided to “put myself out there”? I don’t know…yet. As Marcel explains, the beauty of thinking is that it’s a lifelong process that requires an openness to participate. It’s comforting to know that my opinions aren’t definite, and that I’ve got access to a whole library of thoughts on the internet that can help me improve my own thinking. I’m still learning, but I know that I have the time to figure things out for myself. ♦
Gaby Gloria is a writer from the Philippines who is still trying to figure things out. On most days, you’ll find her at her computer, excessively bookmarking links to DIY projects and articles about teenage wunderkind. You can find her writing on Twitter, Young Star, and The Thing.