Coffee & Wisdom 02.91: The Joy of Having No Opinion Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about opinions.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is coffee and wisdom, summer style, when we’re live on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:00 a.m. Central Time. This week, I want to be looking at the idea of the joy of having no opinion. Now, what could that mean? Because we know, being Americans, your opinion matters and having an opinion is no longer optional. And what is your opinion? And we know of the stigma of not having an opinion. And, yes, no matter what our perspective, we get to say what our opinion is. We even teach writing at the high school and college levels by saying, what’s your opinion? “How to write an opinion based essay” is one of the number one ways to teach writing. So, gee, what about all this? Here is the Supreme Court saying you are entitled to your opinions. That’s how important it is in the U.S. At, we find this: “The U.S. Supreme Court has said that a statement is an opinion that merits protection when it is (1) about a matter of public concern, (2) expressed in a way that makes it hard to prove whether it’s true or false, and (3) can’t be reasonably interpreted to be a factual statement about someone.” All right. So we have protected opinions in the U.S. When did all this start? Well, the first opinion poll in the U.S. appears to have been in the election of 1824. In 1824, it was a four-way race there for a while. Andrew Jackson did pull it out eventually. But the first polling appears to be done in 1824 with local newspapers and not a national polling. Because, hey, you know, the main guy, or at least you’ve heard of Gallup Polls. Yes, in 1901 was born George Gallup and who lived until 1984. Here is the Time magazine cover from 1948. George Gallup, for an election year, a political slide rule. Well okay. Now if you look closely at the picture of his “Man of the Year” of Time, you can see that we have three categories that he’s looking at in the presidential election of 1948. That is “Yes” “No” and then the third category of “Don’t Know”. Now one of the interesting things that we have to think about here is what do we call that third category and how come it has to be “Don’t know”. Can’t it be “Don’t care”, can’t it be, “I’m above the having an opinion on that”, but no, it’s “Don’t Know”. And in the illustration from Time magazine, certainly that voter looks completely clueless and confused. So that is how important we do find opinions in the US. The source for what I’m about to read is, and it says this about the Stoics and opinion. “The Stoics saw opinion as the source of most misery. It’s what takes objective situations and makes them good, bad, wrong, unfair, essential, deserved or outrageous. It’s also what takes things that have nothing to do with us and makes them problems for us.” So are we creating a lot of problems for ourselves when we decide that, “Oh, I’m an American, therefore I need to have an opinion about just about everything.” Now Stoicism, and I am going to talk about Daoism and Buddhism also this week on this idea of opinions, are both what are generally called a beautiful life or a good life philosophy. These differ from the monotheisms in that they look at how do we live happily now in this world. Whereas the monotheisms teach usually a another world, how things would be much better somewhere else when God is in charge, Kingdom of Heaven and that kind of thing. So the beautiful or good life philosophies usually condemn the idea of having an opinion, a plan and a fixed set of rules that must go exactly like this, because it’s a way of doing away with what is generally called “suffering”. Stoicism comes from, originates with a fellow by the name of Zeno of Citium. Citium is in Cyprus. He lives somewhere around 334 to 262 BCE. The term “Stoicism” means “painted porch” in Greek, and that’s because these guys, these Stoics, met on a painted porch. Zeno of Citium was at first a Cynic philosopher. We’ve studied cynicism over time at Coffee and Wisdom. And after he started thinking about this a little bit more, he decided that the cynicism and skepticism really didn’t get at this beautiful life idea.

And so he began to take those ideas and move them over into what he was calling ethics at that time. This caught on and indeed became one of the major movements in the philosophies of both ancient Greece and then moving into Rome. And Stoicism has survived over time as a literary kind of idea through various writings from the ancient world. It goes into early Christianity. It comes back over time into Christian ideas. And indeed, nowadays we have a neostoic movement that is quite popular. Epictetus is one of my favorite stoic writers. He was a teacher. He was a Roman slave who was later freed. And he said this: “We suffer not from the events in our lives, but from our judgment about them.” And this is the absolute center of stoic thinking; we suffer not from what happens to us, but about our judgments, our opinions, of those. So Epictetus is saying watch out for your opinion about your opinions, because that’s what’s going to make you an unhappy person when you begin to take all of these opinions that you have as somehow personally insulting to you if you don’t have your opinion reinstated and indeed come true in some way. He also said, “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. Some things are within our control and some things are not.” So, yes, we can have an opinion about many, many things, would say the Stoics, but we have to be careful about our opinions because they will make us sad.

They will make our life ungood or unbeautiful, If we begin to take those things personally and say, “Oh my gosh, this affects me and I just can’t I just can’t understand why everyone else isn’t agreeing with me.” Now, the Buddhists and the Daoists are in a completely separate tradition of this idea, but they, too, believe in avoiding what they call or what is translated usually as suffering. Suffering is not physical. It is a psychological state of being sad, disconsolate, unhappy, enraged, angry, and those kinds of things. That is mental suffering, not pain, as in stepping on a nail, which actually hurts even Buddhists. So that’s what I want to think about this week. And I invite you to go looking for some of the neostoic ideas. is a great place to start, but you can find modern stoic ideas and a lot of different places. And on Thursday, I want to take a look at the same idea from Daoism, which is the oldest continuous human religion that we know of, certainly the oldest that kept records and written documents and then the offshoot of Hinduism that becomes popular in Southeast Asia called Buddhism. That’s Coffee and Wisdom. We’re having it on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer. Get a little wisdom into your day as your summer progresses. I’m live at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday.

You can, of course, find it elsewhere on our podcast. Go to and you too, can keep up with our podcast and YouTube, etc. And this Sunday, I’m going to be giving most of the people who usually work on Sunday morning to help make First Unitarian Assemblies possible online. We’re going to be taking a little bit of a break because it’s a holiday weekend and it’s the summer. We need to enjoy that. So I’m going to be doing what I’m calling a “Question Box” Sunday, and that is I’m going to come online and I’ll be live for the time that we are together on Sunday morning, so other folks can take off. If you have a question that you would like to ask me, and that can be anything from how First Unitarian Society works, or the meaning of life, or any other of those things that we often consider on Coffee and Wisdom. Just email me, and I’ll be happy to take your question and I’ll make a nice list and get around to as many as I can on Sunday morning. Thanks for listening. Think about a little bit about opinion and how this may reflect a deeply Christian American idea that may not be the best for us all. Just something to think about as you’re thinking about opinions and American society itself. And I’ll see you on Thursday morning to talk a little bit more about the joy of not having an opinion. Thank you.

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