We are normally not aware of our own assumptions. It they show up, it is usually someone else who notices them first, like a shirt collar tag or the spinach in your teeth. Human beings cannot function without assumptions any more than a body can function without a skeleton, but their assumptions are normally as invisible as their bones.
There are times, however, when people’s arguments are so thin that their assumptions show through, like the ribs of a famished child. This has frequently been the case during this past election cycle. When people engage in thinly veiled ad hominem arguments, their assumptions show right through.
Assumptions may be true or false, solid or porous, a helpful support or a useless frame. The beginning of 2021 is a good time to check our assumptions, make sure they are solid and are where they should be. To do this will almost certainly require a friend to look us over and tell us if our assumptions are showing. An enemy might be even better.
Inaccurate assumptions can lead to improper actions, painful emotions, and harmful results. A woman was stuck in the airport, waiting for a delayed flight. As her layover stretched into hours, she got hungry. Because she had pre-purchased an inflight meal, she bought only a bag of cookies, hoping they would tide her over. She sat down at a corner table in a crowded snack bar, opened a newspaper, and began to read.
She scanned the world and national news, then flipped through the lifestyle section. Just as she took up the business section, she heard the rustling of plastic. She lowered her paper to find a well-dressed man sitting across from her eating one of the cookies. She couldn’t believe her eyes.
She glowered at him, pulled the cookies to her side of the table, and conspicuously ate one. She then raised the paper to check what was happening in the markets. Almost immediately, he was back into the cookies. She lowered the paper again and glared at him but, the moment she raised it, he was at it again. This time she stared long and hard at him. In response, he broke the last cookie, slid half across to her, put the rest in his mouth and walked off.
She bristled with anger until her flight was called. At the gate, she reached into her purse for her boarding pass and found the package of cookies she had purchased earlier, unopened.
Unexamined assumptions can lead us to misjudge others’ motives, think ourselves superior, and create unnecessary conflict. Such things have been the hallmark of 2020. Democrats are naïve. Republicans are stupid. Mask-wearers are cowards. Mask-less COVID-deniers care only about themselves. Joe Biden is senile. Donald Trump is just a narcissist.
If, while reading that last sentence, you thought, “But that one is true,” your assumptions are showing – and they are about as attractive as spinach between your teeth. But what if we were to challenge our assumptions, to hold them provisionally until they were confirmed? Such a change could transform our relationships and our country. If, instead of assuming people from the other party are naïve or stupid, we were to question whether there might be something they see that we have missed, our attitude toward them would change.
This is not only true when we are considering other people. It is also true when we are considering God. For example, some people run from God because they assume that his demands on them would be unreasonable and would spoil their lives. Yet the testimony of both Scripture and people throughout history suggests the opposite: that God wants people to be joyful and fulfilled.
To look at our circumstances, we might assume that God has forgotten or forsaken us, or even that he opposes us. Even saints have at times struggled with such thoughts. But if we challenge that assumption and provisionally substitute the supposition that God intends to bring good to us and to the world, we might discover divine activity even in the midst of great difficulty. And once we find it, we might become part of it, and that would change everything.
(First published by Gannet.)