Righting the Wobblies

September 19th, 2005

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“Coach, am I a guard… or a tackle?”
If you watch the old, grainy high school football film, you can catch the moment I was kicked in the back of the head and wobbled to the sideline. It was not until later that evening – when the locker room (and my head) had cleared out – that the coaches informed me of my muddled inquiry.

People suffering from the ‘wobblies’ often can’t hear their own confusion. That was apparent last week on NPR, when Ted Gup – a wonderful man who has written for Time, National Geographic, The New York Times and teaches journalism at Case Western Reserve University – sounded as if he had taken a blow to the head. On “Morning Edition,” he said: “For years I really didn’t know what I believed. I always seemed to stand in the no-man’s land between opposing arguments, yearning to be won over by one side or the other, but finding instead degrees of merit in both.”1

OK… so far, so good. There are always two sides to every story. But here comes the kick in the head. Ted has settled for being a permanent “Wobbly.” He describes ‘wobblies’ as “good people all – open-minded, inquisitive, and yes, confused. We shared a common creed. Our articles of faith all ended with a question mark.”

Listener gushed in their responses. “It’s so wonderful Ted has an open mind.” “We need more open-mindedness like Ted’s in this world.” Ted Gup was universally lauded for embracing what he described as “my confusion, and to recognize it as a friend and ally, no apologies needed.”

He’s right on one point – no apologies are needed. Smelling salts might help, though. Ted’s description of an open mind is like the bumper sticker “A mind is like a parachute. It only functions when it’s open.” Wobbly people believe this makes sense – until their heads clear. Here’s why.

A mind is – in one sense – like a parachute. It does function when it’s open; but that’s only half the story (and, as the saying goes, a half-truth is a whole lie). A parachute does not function simply because it is open – it must also be collecting something (in this case, air) in order to work. A parachute that opens in deep space does not function. Try opening a parachute on your driveway.

If a mind is like a parachute – and I believe it is – it only functions when open and holding on to something. You can’t hang on to a question mark.

This popular slant on an open mind is not new. G.K. Chesterton used to go ’round and ’round with his wobbly friend H.G. Wells on this very topic. “He thought that the object of opening the mind is simply opening the mind. Whereas I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

You can’t run when your feet are firmly planted in mid-air… or when you’re wobbly. After my kick in the head, I was out of the game. I couldn’t help my team get the ball down the field. And you can see the difficulty Ted and all ‘wobbies’ have trying to move important conversations (e.g., civil society, human rights, ethics, etc.) down the field. “I wouldn’t want a whole newsroom, hospital, platoon or – God forbid – a nation of us.”

I admire Ted’s candor – the shortcomings of ‘wobblies’ are formidable. But his honesty indicates the fog might be lifting. If so, he should consider one of the best ‘conversation movers’ in history – the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition understood as a “four chapter” Story characterized by four types of conversations.2 From the abolition of slavery, to workers’ rights, to women’s rights, to the Protestant work ethic; this faith tradition has helped right wobbly people for centuries.

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1Ted Gup, In Praise of the ‘Wobblies,’ Morning Edition, National Public Radio, September 12, 2005.
2(1) how things ought to be, (2) what is – i.e., what are things really like in the real world as a result of our shortcomings, (3) what we can do to make things better, and (4) what things will be like some day, when the world is fully restored.

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