The arguments we use

Our narratives are often borrowed from the society around us. It’s easier and more secure that way… until we suffer. Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Many of the logical arguments we use in daily life are not to seek the truth.  They are to justify ourselves.


For instance, different religions have been born in different countries.  Theologians have then been employed to justify the points of view of those religions.  Logical arguments have emerged that tried to strengthen the authority of those religions.

The same is true not only of religions, but political parties, cultural perspectives, and local and personal viewpoints.  We humans have a habit of first assuming what must be true, and then decorating that assumption with whatever arguments come to hand.

Why do we do this?  What is so attractive about the assumptions we defend?


Cognitively, the attraction lies in economy of thought.  If I am born in a country with a particular religion, then I do not have to think very hard to adopt the prevailing belief set.  I just copy everyone else, and away I go.  My society offers me pre-made arguments, and I use them at my convenience.


Socially and emotionally, the attraction lies in security.  If I am rewarded with a strong sense of identity, and the assurance of protection, then I have secured a mental equilibrium at very low cost in terms of effort.


In other words, if I am born in a country with a particular value-system, and wish to minimise thought-effort, and maximise personal security, then I will choose that value-system as mine, and identify with it.


The same is true on a personal level.  Over our lifetimes, we develop what I call ‘big voices’ – stories we tell ourselves which bring us personal security with little effort of thought.  If I feel low self-esteem, then I find and share a meme that tells me ‘you are worth it’.  With it I buy, at low cost, some personal security.

These ‘big voices’ settle in our heads as well-used tropes.  A business person will be good at arguing that business is important.  A union boss will be good at arguing that unions are important.  Someone associated with a particular gender, race, physical appearance, personality trait, or set of circumstances, will evolve a set of arguments that bring them security with ease.


In terms of mental health, this is fine until something happens that threatens the status quo.

Counselling clients often come to me because their ‘big voices’ are not working.  Even though they know what arguments they are supposed to use, they feel unhappy.  Even though they have the ingredients for safety, they feel insecure.

Their ‘big voices’ are no longer enough. 

A business person may be betrayed by the very business network they have supported all their life.  A religious person may become aware of something in their religious community that they experience as bad or inconsistent.  An important relationship that has formed part of our identity and self-justification may have ended with separation or death.

As those times, our usual ‘big voices’ cease to be enough for us.  Other, more negative, thoughts and feelings point to the inconsistency and insecurity of life.


What I usually discover, working with clients through those times, is that there is always hope.  Slowly, but surely, we negotiate the bad times, and renegotiate our identity where necessary.

Sometimes, we start to hear new voices, faintly at first.  New urges, thoughts, questions and issues begin to occur to us.  I call these ‘little voices’, because often we do not, at first, have the language to express them.

What emerges is a renegotiated way of speaking to ourselves and the world.  Just as civilisations undergo crises and learn from them, so we individuals experience difficulties and modify our inner narratives to embrace them.


We learn through our suffering. We are born into certain ready-made arguments, but life throws curve-balls at us.  If we are wise, we respond by adjusting to the reality of our suffering, and learning to modify our arguments, and our narratives, to find better ways of living.


Societies and religions drop old, simplistic arguments which exclude people, and start to be more inclusive.  Individuals drop their ‘big voices’, and start to listen to more subtle ‘little voices’, in themselves and others.  We become quieter and more empathic.  Through suffering, life becomes richer and wiser.