Jose Antonio Cangco

When we come to look at it there are really only three major ways that man can think. He may reflect, deliberate, rationalize, speculate, contemplate, meditate, consider, fancy or even dream while he is wide awake. These mental activities entertain him, help him relax, solve his problems or dilemmas and generally get him through the mazes of life to reach his goal. In spite of all of these mental activities, “correct thinking” as a means to express himself properly occurs only in three ways.

The first kind of thinking deals with the past. When a person is reflecting or reminiscing about an event, it should have happened in that time period. For example, after work or school, when he shall have reached his home, he may sometimes go over the day’s events and happenings. If he is a conscientious businessman or a practicing professional he may ask himself if he had treated his customers or clients fairly. Or if he is a student he may ask himself if there was any classmate who was a little behind with his schoolwork that he had failed to help.

The second kind of “correct thinking” deals with the present. Besides the events which happened in the past, another concern for the normal man or woman is what is happening to them daily. They think a lot about today because there is an element of immediacy and spontaneity about it. They are living in the present carrying a baggage from the past toward an unknown destination in the future. These make them naturally conscious and even cautious about almost anything that they do.

The third kind of “correct thinking” is looking forward to the future. The problem however is that when man is trying to look ahead in the future, he is peering into the unknown. With just questions, probability models and horoscopes to guide him, he can never be certain at all. For example, a car salesman will ask himself if the sales technique he used with Mr. Rodriguez yesterday will still be effective with Mr. Dominguez tomorrow? Nobody is sure until the customer shall have decided.

All the foregoing mental activities correspond to the three major ways of thinking and each of them has an element of the past, present or future. Moreover, each one of these thinking activities can happen in only one specific period.

When a person is relaxed, he tends to think nice thoughts. He reminisces about pleasant things, maybe enjoying the panorama and peaceful surroundings or probably he may even be happily planning for the future. Being on a vacation also means that there are no tight schedules to follow which can cut into the person’s reverie. He is free to join in any sports recreation he wants and follow any list of activities he wants to do.

A person who is on a vacation is free of any rigid schedules to cut into his reveries, but expressive or correct thinking is different. Having pleasant thoughts is a very relaxing and soothing mental process indeed; but to get the most benefits, a person should be aware that thinking does not happen haphazardly: the mind follows a process or order.

Even the Bible has this to say: “Vanity of vanities, said the Preacher; vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit has man of all his labors wherein he labors under the sun? One generation goes, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever. The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to its place where it arises. The wind goes toward the south and turns about into the north; it turns about continually in its course, and the wind returns again to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place where the rivers go, there they go again. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be; and there is no new thing under the sun”. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9).

As the Bible says that everything has a place under the sun, so then is there a way to correct thinking. And to be able to use his mental faculties to the best, the person should stick to that particular division of time he is in.

An interesting, simple, and yet very accurate way to illustrate these time periods in mental activities is to compare them with the different tense forms of the verb. In English grammar, there are three primary tenses which correspond to the three divisions of time: past, present and future. If we draw a straight horizontal line and cut it equally into three parts by drawing two short vertical lines at equal intervals, then we shall have a clear representation of the past, present and future periods.

Let us not go into the philosophical question of when does the past end and the present start or when does the present end and the future begin. In our illustration and in the English language, it is enough that the writer or speaker can clearly express what he means by using the correct tense forms of the verb or by adding auxiliary words such as could, can, had, have, would, will, etc. for the particular division of time he wishes to convey.

Naturally, an actual event that happened in the past is expressed using the past tense. For example, “When I dropped my key, the doorman picked it up for me”. The good speaker or writer of any language will not confuse the time sequences in his sentence; if the idea is too long or if he wants to shift to another tense, he can always express it in another paragraph.

But we don’t have to be an educator, writer or speaker to carefully think over the ideas we want to convey to our listeners or readers. By arranging his thoughts or information in their proper order or sequence the ordinary person in the street shall be able to express them clearly. In other words, if he were to think out first the order of the events he wants to talk or speak about—that some element or sequence of time is involved—then he will be able to present his ideas clearly, concisely and effectively and thereby avoid confusing his listeners and readers.

There is an almost infinite number of experiences and situations that can be taken from everyday life as examples of past events, events happening now, and events that are going to happen tomorrow. But the only rule is never jump from one particular division of time to another while being engaged in one idea. It is similar to the gentleman’s rule of never courting two girls at the same time. He risks trouble, or worse, to lose both.

How to remain within one particular period can also be explained again with an example of English grammar. Take the progressive form of the verb. The progressive form of the verb shows a continuing action within a particular division of time whether it be in the past, present or future. So, in the sentence “He was sleeping when we arrived,” the continuing action that was happening is sleeping. Notice too that although there are two events that happened in the past tense, they never broke into another division of time, that is, the tense did not suddenly shift into the present or future. If the average person arranges his thoughts in this way then he is said to be thinking in an orderly and correct manner.

Most students and speakers of English have trouble when stating two related events that shall happen in the future. But if the speaker thinks out carefully about the sequence of events he wants to say, he will seldom be misunderstood. In the sentence, “I shall have finished eating dinner by the time she will arrive” both actions are going to occur in the future. As an example of the so called “perfect tenses”, this sentence shows an already completed or perfected action: dinner that is already finished upon the girl’s arrival.

There is no rule that says man cannot shift his thoughts from the past, present and future but this should not be done abruptly. A person talking while in a conversation with another person normally pauses to listen and to speak or emphasize something. Likewise, a person who is in the process of thinking also pauses “to listen” to his own ideas and then arranges them himself.

These are common sense rules that a person ought to know whatever language he speaks or writes in. It so happened, however, that learning English or some other language can help a person’s ability to express himself more clearly.

Of course, it is very hard for the average person to keep track of his ideas, thoughts, and notions especially because they seem to come in droves, cascading down on him. What this all means is that a good speaker, writer, educator, politician or anybody for that matter should always think before he speaks.

Copyright by the Author
(Published in the Philippine Panorama, April 13, 2008)

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