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I don’t mean about what you planned to wear on Tuesday, or that time you ordered pizza instead of Chinese. Forget even more serious matters, such as considering a new career path, or cutting ties with certain people in your life.
I mean, rather, about a point of view. A belief. Your perspective. Those things that, although they don’t – or shouldn’t - define you, in essence reflect the person you are.
I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone fess up to being close-minded. Being a slob? Sure. Lazy? Often. Having a temper? Yes, even having a temper. But being close-minded? Nosireebob, nobody wants to be that. When it comes to our tolerance, you would think we are all just a happy bunch of free-spirited hippies who are fully accepting of all human beings and ideas.
There are levels of open-mindedness of course, and, just so we’re clear, “I’m not racist but…” doesn’t fall under any category. And because it’s what racist people say when they can’t acknowledge being racist, they are in no position to change their mind about it.
Others come with a disclaimer, like the tired and overused “I’ve got nothing against gays, as long as they don’t hit on me.” Yeah, no, that’s not QUITE the open-mindedness we were shooting for, but I guess it’s a step up from shouting slurs through a megaphone at the LGBTQ parade.
So let’s focus on those who are generally quite open and accepting of people from all walks of life, those who won’t treat you differently based on your skin colour, gender, age, culture or sexual orientation. Those who are genuinely fond of human beings and believe that we are all equal. Chances are, even they will admit to reacting defensively when the issue at stake touches on long-held beliefs or world views, with certain subjects hitting a particularly raw nerve. The death penalty, abortion, climate change, euthanasia, gun control, war, immigration, the legalization of drugs are all sensitive issues, and with good reason. We don’t so much want to be right as we need to be right, because, as rational as we think we are, we are deeply emotionally invested in our beliefs, which is why very few discussions involve a factual, objective analysis of the pros and cons of either side, and fewer still result in a re-assessment of one’s convictions.
Much of our inner compass is formed by our early environment on an unconscious level. Our parents tell us, and model for us, what is right and wrong, and often tell us what to think. We are, for the most part, not encouraged to look at various facets of an issue, to question things, to form an outside opinion and arrive at a personal conclusion. We are certainly not encouraged to challenge our parents’ views, which would be seen as a threat, and to run counter to them could result in undesirable consequences, like withdrawal of affection or straight-up punishment. And so we learn that to be loved, we need to conform, and we internalize these viewpoints, and convince ourselves that we have come to these conclusions freely and of our own volition.
With this ingrained code of ethics, we then go into the world instinctively looking to connect with people reflecting similar values, thus finding our tribe, a group of like-minded individuals who make us feel normal and accepted, and sometimes feed our sense of superiority over those who think differently. The weaker the self-esteem, the stronger the dynamic.
Like our parents, we in turn feel threatened by any idea that runs counter to our belief system. We fear being wrong, and therefore rejected and outcast and somehow diminished. Being wrong feels like admitting defeat, while sticking to our guns, insisting on being right, almost becomes a matter of survival, and so we stay the course.
We don’t do that to ourselves when it comes to that career change, or cutting ties to toxic people. There, we can freely, happily, own our decision to make a change, and at no point do we feel that this reflects on us as having been wrong, or bad, or less worthy. We can happily admit that there was a time when that job, or that friendship, had a reason for being, but that, over time, transformations took place that have now brought us to a new place and time, making us seek conditions that are in sync with who we are now.
Yet, when it comes to our beliefs, it is a whole other story. We get defensive and lash out, when in fact we should embrace the challenge. Having someone question where we stand forces us to make a solid case for ourselves. We may come out of it with a renewed sense of conviction or come to realize that a view that had value 25, 10, even 2 years ago, needs to be re-adjusted in light of new information, or a new perspective. But if we are truly confident, if our position is solid, it will withstand the strongest counter arguments, and if it’s not, then it deserves to be dismantled, and not begrudgingly, but with a tipped hat, and congratulations. It’s a battle of wits minus the ego.
We’re not talking about changing your mind like your underwear – same symptoms, different result. But to allow for our mind to be open enough to hear another person out and to give credit where credit is due, to be happy to see our beliefs tested and challenged and find out what are really made of, and to realize that we simply don’t have a horse in the race – not because we don’t have a horse but because there’s no race – that is good stuff.
So when did I last change my mind?
It was a few months ago. A friend and I were discussing organ donation. As a strong supporter, I was thrilled to hear about countries making the practice mandatory, meaning that rather than consenting to organ donation by signing your card, you actually had to opt out if you did not wish for your organs to be removed. I thought this was terrific, as there is such a lack of donors, and such a dire need for organs. This was for the greater good, after all, how could anyone possibly argue?
And then my friend asked “But why should organ donation be the default?” I wasn’t sure I understood. “I mean, why isn’t the default to leave the body untouched? Why is it incumbent upon the individual to make sure that his or her body is NOT invaded? The default should be the natural state of the dead body. Any amendment to that should need to be consented to.”
And he was right. Mandatory organ donation was essentially forcing someone’s hand – either by making them donate, or by making them have to ensure they don’t.
I’d always been the first one to say that right and wrong were principles that could not be altered according to benefits, or risks, or popularity, and this was no different. So I re-adjusted my position. Not joyfully, I might add. I would much rather that there be an abundance of organs available for anyone who needs one. But that just means that we need to double down on our efforts to educate people, encourage them to sign those cards, help them see the benefit, and take the fear out of them thinking a misdiagnosis might lead to the removal of their organs when they could instead still wake up and return to a full, happy, healthy life. More work, really, but not a lost cause.
Changing one’s mind about one’s beliefs shouldn’t be as simplistic as ordering pizza instead of Chinese, but there is no reason it can’t be just as simple. And it’s quite liberating to be able to say “I guess I never looked at it that way before!” and shrug, and see that life goes on, not only not weakened, but strengthened by a new perspective.
I strongly recommend people try it, every once in a while.
Sandra is a blogger, life coach and activist.