A Contrarian JMU TEDx student speaker possesses unique life perspective

By: Lindsey Doyle and Katie Robertson

Most people would be nervous to climb on stage in a room of people and make potentially controversial statements. Jonathan Stein was not most people. The fifth floor ballroom of Madison Union was full of familiar and friendly faces and he was excited to stand in front of them and speak about the Contrarian philosophy. He was wearing a carefully chosen outfit--a purple dress shirt for JMU, and a grey suit--his nicest one that he had bought the previous summer for his internship.

He bounded onto stage after the bubbly emcee introduced him and the audience instantly welcomed his confident, warm stage presence. His words flowed easily, having practiced the speech to himself many times already. He was eager to share his philosophy in which he used to execute his daily life. He finished his introduction saying, “the individual who braves the cold outside of that blanket of comfortable thoughts – is the contrarian.”

On an evening during his senior year of high school, he stepped out onto his black-top driveway. Memories from his childhood danced in the background to Bruce Springsteen blasting from the speakers. He danced like nobody was watching and he knew the music was probably irking the neighbors and golfers on the 14th hole just beyond the backyard, but he didn’t care.

His favorite sounds were the quiet “dribble, dribble” of the ball, followed by the “swoosh!” of the net. The form of his shot had become second nature, ingrained in his muscle memory.

The sun was setting adjacent to the house, and he heard the door from inside the garage creak open. His mom stepped out and called, “Jonny! Time for dinner!” He was pulled back to reality, away from his carefree corner of the world. Little did he know, he was about to experience hardship that would be the beginning of an intellectual transformation that would shape his unique outlook on life.

Jonathan would describe his childhood as ideal to anyone who asked. He had a loving, supporting family. He was a good student, who was both athletic and artistic. Up until his senior year of high school, he was rolling through the motions of life on what he calls “autopilot”. Then, this picturesque childhood came to an abrupt halt in August of 2013. His parents told him over dinner that his uncle, Jeff Hahn, had kidney cancer. In keeping with the sensitivity of Jonathan’s past 18 years his parents, Rich and Christine, kept the seriousness of the disease from invading their children’s minds.

They did what they could to protect their family and each other from the eventual truth of aggressive kidney cancer, but Jonathan could occasionally feel the severity. He played the Mad Hatter in his high school’s stage production of Alice in Wonderland that Autumn, but Jeff couldn’t make it due to his sickness. Eventually, Christmas came and Jonathan sensed in this time with his uncle that things were getting worse. Even still, he thought his uncle would see the terrible disease through.

On February 21st, 2014, Jonathan received a phone call from his father. He was still parked in the school parking lot after leaving the building, expecting to head to his new job at a local gym. Rich’s instructions were simple- drive home instead of to work. Their family would then head immediately to Pennsylvania, because his uncle had taken a turn for the worse. The next 24 hours were agonizing, but the family held out hope until the very end. Jeff Hahn passed away on February 22nd, 2014.

To say this experience rocked Jonathan and his family would be speaking lightly. Without ever truly accepting the severity of the metastasizing of his uncle’s cancer, Jonathan’s family was left ill prepared for the eventual fall out. Jeff’s death sent Jonathan reeling with questions, but one particularly racked his brain; would he ever see his uncle again?

Like many other twenty-somethings in the United States, Jonathan was raised in a watered-down religious environment. His parents still viewed faith as a very important thing, but it was never capitalized on in actual practice. You could find the Stein family in the pews of St. Ignatius church on Christmas and Easter of every year, but most other Sundays in their household were spent sleeping in rather than attending church.

Before formal meals with extended family they prayed, but they did not make that regular practice. Jonathan’s first communion felt more like a formality than a first transcendent blessing of the Eucharist. Because of this, Jonathan had no concrete view of the afterlife.

And so, Jonathan went researching. Ensuring that he was fair, he sought out biblical as well as atheist arguments for the afterlife or lack thereof. His most prominent and exemplified research revolved around two books; one by a pair of Christian evangelists, and one by an atheist. Jonathan’s time reading and comparing the arguments in either book led him to one realization. He desperately wanted to be convinced that he would see his uncle again, but he consistently sided with the atheist.

Hours of footage passed on the screen in front of Jonathan’s eyes as he spent much of his freshman year of college on YouTube watching biblical vs. atheist debates. His favorite thinker, Christopher Hitchens, shut down every theologian that dared challenge him in debate with his cool demeanor and unmistakable English accent. In fact, Hitchens could so devastatingly debate another philosopher that his intellectual beat downs are affectionately referred to as “Hitch-slaps” all throughout YouTube.

It is from Hitchens that Jonathan found the term “contrarian.” A contrarian, as defined by Jonathan Stein, is someone who feels that the majority does not speak for them. The contrarian challenges easily accepted ideas. Instead of nodding in agreement when someone says that everything happens for a reason, the contrarian would step back and analyze the effect this common idea has on the suspension of critical thinking. In Christopher Hitchens’ book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, he says, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”

This is the hallmark of Jonathan’s new existence. The constant questioning of ideas that once were so easily acceptable has raised him to a new level of critical thinking. His mindset sets him apart from most other college students, who wouldn’t take the time to consider the real principle behind commonly held beliefs. This perspective is why Jonathan was deemed worthy of a student speaking position on JMU’s campus at TEDx. He recognized how difficult it is to “stand out” as it were, even on an inclusive and diverse campus like JMU and wanted to reach students who felt a struggle to set themselves apart.

Contrarians often come to conclusions that appear unpopular to the majority, and therefore make it difficult for such ideas to circulate. He encouraged his audience to consider how challenging these easily digestible ideas is a way to avoid conformity. He believes that this way of looking at life is a way to set yourself apart, and anyone who knows Jonathan on a personal level would agree that he is indeed setting himself apart.

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