Saturday, August 13, 2011

Do you ever change your mind?

This is a question I ponder about myself a lot. I suppose it has to do with the fact that over the course of 10-15 years in my 20's and 30's, I changed my mind about everything I had come to believe growing up in a right wing Christian fundamentalist family and community. I know the damage that surety can do when we build those walls around ourselves. And so I worry as I see bricks being laid in my own mind to ward off inconvenient truths. I also know the fear that wards off uncertainty and the sense of aloneness that can come with thinking/feeling your own way through the challenges in life. Here's David Whyte writing about that in a poem titled Revelation Must Be Terrible.

Years ago Sara Robinson wrote a three part series at Orcinus on the authoritarian personality. In the second installment titled Cracks in the Wall: Listening to the Leavers she describe my experience very well.

These people know that the tiny flicker of enlightenment kindling in their minds is about to set their entire lives ablaze. And yet -- with a courage that I always find astonishing -- almost all of them forge ahead anyway. Some race for the wall. Others pace back and forth for months, planning their escape. A few disappear for a while, but return again a year later, having put their lives in order and ready to go at last.

We must never, ever underestimate what it costs these people to let go of the beliefs that have sustained them. Leaving the safety of the authoritarian belief system is a three-to-five year process. Externally, it always means the loss of your community; and often the loss of jobs, homes, marriages, and blood relatives as well. Internally, it requires sifting through every assumption you've ever made about how the world works, and your place within it; and demands that you finally take the very emotional and intellectual risks that the entire edifice was designed to protect you from. You have to learn, maybe for the first time, to face down fear and live with ambiguity.

Facing fear and learning to live with ambiguity is indeed a challenge. We have come to place a great deal of emphasis in this culture - and especially in our politics - on being right and then fighting it out with anyone who disagrees. The difficulty sometimes is in knowing when we are fighting for something we truly believe in and when we are fighting to ward off that fear and ambiguity.

These are the reasons I think that much of the online "debates" on blogs are so eternal and unproductive. I have to admit to being as addicted to them as anyone else. But ultimately I find myself asking this question: "what is it we're really trying to accomplish?" Do we think that our surety and ability to fight for our position actually changes anyone's mind? I don't see that happening. I see ourselves (and those who agree with us) simply fortifying the belief that we're right - on both sides of the disagreement.

When I have experienced actually changing my mind or learning something, it hasn't been in that kind of exchange. Its usually been when I can pry my mind open to learn something from someone who has a different experience than my own. Over the last few years, much of that learning has come when I listen to people of color about how their view of the world and our shared experiences differs from my own. It is in that context that I found these words from Jonathan Odell so enlightening. He's writing about the very specific context of a work environment where a white manager is trying to understand an African American employee. But I think they have a much broader application as well.

There is an honest, open give and take, non-defensive dialogue: This may sound obvious, but a lot can go wrong when you are trying to prove you are not a racist, intolerant or even mildly prejudiced. Let it go. Defending your credentials deflects attention from the issue at hand.

The emphasis is not getting it right, just on getting it: You have to step out of the “right or wrong” dilemma. The point is not to agree or debate, or to win, but to understand. This takes an entirely different type of listening. Questions are vital, but they are asked out of sincere interest, not as a means to control, interrogate, embarrass or win a point.

There is a high tolerance for discomfort, especially your own: The more you try to act like you know what you are doing, the less likely you are to connect authentically. Don’t feign certainty to cover up ignorance. You cheat yourself out of learning.
(emphasis mine)

I write this as much to myself as anyone else. I want to cultivate that desire to understand rather than always have to win. More than anything, I want to learn.

I'll end with a quote I rely on pretty often. Its something Nezua said years ago over at The Unapologetic Mexican.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view...

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on ...anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them...and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too...

I am far more comfortable navigating the in-between than I am in any Place. I like no thing as much as the coming and going from one to another. It is on the purpling beaches of dusk and the roseing gauze of dawn that my true eye shines lidless and I see so much more than in broad daylight. In the falling away of my tired husk I remember my shape can only be held temporarily. And to cling too tightly to it is to rot.

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for your willingness to open yourself up to show such vulnerability. I am in awe. More than thanks I appreciate how much I learn from you. How much and how well you have read. What a wonderful life you have lived and offered to the world. I am so happy to have found you.


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