I Never Thought of That

By Robert Bernstein   |   September 14, 2021

Some things really are taboo, and I want to write more about that in the future. I recently posted a cartoon on Facebook that showed a guy saying, “Having a dog has convinced me that animals have souls. And that is why I became a vegetarian.” The other person says, “Yet you feed your dog meat.”

When I made the post, I noted that some of my friends may never talk to me again for making this post. Sure enough, I received many responses. Ranging from confused to angry to indignant to surprisingly supportive. Here were some responses:

“What does diet have to do with the benefits of owning a pet?”

“Would you have me kill my dog to show my love of animals?”

“Humans are the sole cause of the 6th mass extinction. Should I kill everyone I know to try to stop it?”

“Life is suffering. Are their [sic] contradictions in what I say? Yes, but they don’t keep me up at night.”

“Life is a paradox.”

“I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Couldn’t resist, but I also think it’s true.”

“If my cat could understand, I would try to convince him to not eat other animals.”

“Living up here in Montana, I know that the best way to eat meat is to shoot it yourself, gut, clean, butcher, and consume. Zero carbon footprint.”

“The amount we spend feeding, pampering, and providing medical care for ‘pets’ could keep millions of starving people alive and well.”

“I tried posting about the carbon impacts of owning a dog. Some pretty angry responses came in. Mainly ‘whataboutery.’ In all seriousness though, if we’re going to tackle climate change, we need to look at all of it.”

But then came this response:

“I never thought about this.”

Of all the responses I received, I appreciated this one the most. I privately replied to her to thank her. I did not comment on any other reply, which is unusual for me.

How often do we say, “I never thought about this”? Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Knowledge is when you learn something new every day.” Often shortened to, “Learn something new every day.” If so, shouldn’t we be saying “I never thought about this” at least once a day?

Instead, our hairless ape brains instinctively respond. Usually, with a defensive response to justify why we should continue to believe whatever we already wanted to believe. But sometimes there is no quick and easy answer.

Sometimes, the best thing is to take in the new information and not act on it right away. It may be that it will take days, months, or years to assimilate the information in a way that allows appropriate action. This is especially true for new information that would change something that affects our core beliefs and core habits.

This was part of the message of Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. Sometimes we learn something new that requires a rethinking of how we live our lives. It is as if a dear friend has died. We go through stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

At first, we just don’t want to believe it is true. We become angry. Perhaps angry at the messenger. We try to bargain for something less disruptive than the reality we are facing. When that fails, we become depressed about what we are losing. Finally, we are forced to accept a new reality. Perhaps we can start a new life that is better at least in some ways.

A related expression to “I never thought about this” is “I don’t know.” Why is it so difficult for people to say this? Instead, we are very quick to fill that vacuum of knowledge with pretty much anything. I took a graduate level philosophy class with Charles Chihara at Berkeley who offered a related insight.

Suppose someone tells you that Zeus created the Universe. You reply that you think that is wrong. They reply, “Do you have a better explanation?” Chihara pointed out that you are not obligated to have a better explanation in order to reject one that is wrong. You can always say, “I don’t know. But I do know that your explanation is wrong.”

There is one phrase that seems even harder for our species to say: “I was wrong.” Perhaps if we could become more comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and admitting mistakes we could better learn to move forward?


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