Feb 052015
 

Note: This article will appear in the March/April issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

You don’t have to agree with my premise, however, if I propose a thought experiment, would you play along for just a moment?

Starting right now, suppose you knew for a fact that a significant portion—perhaps 30 or 40 percent—of everything you thought, felt and believed was wrong, or at least considerably askew. Further, what if everyone else had the same awareness of their own thoughts and feelings? How might you enter the world differently? I have been asking this question in recent presentations, and the conclusions vary wildly.

Some find the idea horrifying: “I’d never be able to make a decision.” “I would be frightened to say anything.” “I think I would be paralyzed.” “We’d never get anything done!”

Many find it reassuring: “I’d be more curious, less dogmatic.” “I would ask more questions.” “I would enter the world more gently.” “I’d be more open to learning.”

Admittedly, I fall into this latter category.

Too often, in today’s public discourse, the retort to an opposing view often sounds like “You’re an idiot, and let me tell you why.” We have public hearings in which, I fear, no one is listening. Attend one sometime and see if you can discern any question marks hiding out amongst the very large and forceful periods that end most sentences. Of course you’ll have to discount “questions” the likes of “Are you nuts?”

The world would be a better place if each of us opened ourselves first to the possibility of our own rational shortcomings, rather than clawing desperately for the flaw in the logic of others. If I was truly interested in listening for my shortcomings, rather than yours, might it become a more thoughtful, sympathetic world imbued with greater understanding? But then, attention to my own failings would require courage…and a less tenacious ego.

Having read a great deal about our current understanding of the human brain, there are overwhelming reasons to accept the premise that a significant percent of a human’s thoughts are misguided. I previously documented many[1], so I won’t repeat them here. But consider a few more.

Human memory is imprecise and capricious. Your brain dissects experiences and stores them in disparate parts of your cortex. When memories are recalled, these pieces are reassembled, not accurately, but in a “good-enough” fashion that is easily distorted. Eyewitness accounts in a court of law, we now know, are among the least reliable pieces of evidence. Once a supposed culprit is identified in a sketchbook or lineup, that image replaces the one real one formed in the cortex at the moment of the offense.

Have you ever jumped to conclusions about another human being based on how they dress, a bumper sticker on their car, a sound bite or rumor…only to discover you pre-judged them erroneously?

How much of what you believe today is identical with what you believed 10 or 20 years ago? While some new thinking is based on adding to your store of knowledge, haven’t you discovered many ways in which your thinking in years past was inaccurate?

How much of what humankind believes today is the same as we believed, say, 500 years ago? I dare say very little. Is it possible what we believe 500 years from now will be equally distant from what we “know” is true today? I think it is possible.

So is it conceivable that 10 or 20 years from now, each of us will, in fact, discover that some large portion of our beliefs today are limited, misguided or flat out wrong? I hope so! Put another way: in 10 years, if I am destined to think exactly as I do today…just shoot me now!

When I think back on the myriad difficult relationships that populate portions of my personal history, it pains me to realize, had I had the wisdom to end more of my sentences with question marks rather than periods, life could have been so much sweeter…and I so much the wiser for having been less certain and more curious.

But, then again, maybe I am wrong about this whole idea.

[1] See my April 7, 2013 blog post, “Majesty and Radiance.”

Nov 082010
 
The following appeared recently in Neighbors of Batavia Magazine.
I do verklempt about as well as anyone.
Recently, the Chamber of Commerce recognized 18 professionals, under the age of 30, at our first annual “20 Under 30” dinner. It was a night filled with emotion as these extraordinary young leaders gathered with the senior leaders who nominated them, and a plethora of proud parents, friends and relatives. As is often the case, when in a place imbued with meaning, I became verklempt—choked with emotion.
I realize as I write, that the words we use seldom communicate their true importance. It is the emotions animating those words that do. As I introduced the honorees that evening, what brought tears to the eyes of those in the room was not what these young people accomplish at work; it was hearing that collectively they canoed 2300 miles to raise money for cancer research…spent their free time with Big Brother and Big Sisters, and Feed My Starving Children… dealt daily with people struggling mightily to find a reason to continue their lives…tutored the students at Mooseheart…were instrumental in bringing art and beauty to Batavia and so much more. It was their generosity and giving nature that invited everyone to explore the meaning of verklempt.
Kanizsa Triangle

That night I used an icon, created by Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa in 1955, as a metaphor for how we construct meaning. I asked the guests to decide whether the black or white triangle was larger. The majority concluded they were the same size. Then I asked how many noticed there were no triangles in the picture at all. That brought a smile to many faces…and frustration to others.

We owe our survival, as individuals and as a species on the brain’s ability to extract bits of data from the environment and use that limited information to construct complete pictures and draw conclusions. If not for this ability, we would be unable to, upon hearing rustling in the woods, construct a picture that includes the possibility of a dangerous snake in our presence. It is this ability that, when we see a green light turn yellow, enables us to conclude a red light is likely to follow. It is this ability that allows us to see a few facial features on a loved one and inquire if they are troubled about some aspect of their life.
Unfortunately, we are so adept at moving from disconnected images to complete pictures that we can fall into the trap of believing the pictures we create are accurate beyond reproach. If I am not careful, by looking only at certain aspects of young people as they enter the workplace, I can construct a less-than-flattering picture of who they are. Doing so is disrespectful, dishonest and distasteful. Most forms of prejudice emerge from our unwillingness to question the inaccurate pictures our minds complete of others…using disconnected bits of information to pre-judge them.
There is a Buddhist tradition that says, if we were to look deeply into the souls of those around us, we would never get anything done…we would spend our lives bowing to one another. We took the time at our recent dinner to look more deeply into the souls of 18 emerging leaders and create a more accurate picture of their wholeness. It left me in awe…it left me with the desire to bow in their presence…and it left me verklempt.
Apr 192010
 

It is a common aphorism in Buddhism: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. But being ready, and recognizing the teacher in your midst, is often difficult—especially when you are blinded by emotion, and it takes humility and forgiveness to restore your sight.

Recently, Judi and I attended a week long Hawaiian music festival on the island of Hawaii. The hulas, music, chanting and dress were nothing short of stunning. But it was in the midst of the magic that events conspired—and an unlikely teacher was sent—to teach me how the world is so often different than I first perceive it.
Just before the festival began, I left my seat to purchase a program. When I tried to return to my seat, moments after the opening ceremony commenced, a stern-looking, Hawaiian security guard tied a rope across the stairway and told me the stairs were closed. When I asked how I could get back to my seat to see the show, I’m sure my frustration was apparent. In the pidgin-English so common in Hawaii, he said “When it ova” and his gaze and posture showed he was not about to be intimidated. Twenty minutes later, when the opening ceremony was “ova,” they lowered the rope at the stairway to my left. The guard, who stood eye-to-eye with me, indicated his stairway was for exiting only by pointing me to the other set of stairs. I rolled my eyes and begrudgingly followed his directions…but I was more than a little upset.
My Hawaiian partner in this dance of power had a graying ponytail, leather hat and leather vest…I was certain his motorcycle sat waiting for him out back. Judging from the look on his face, he seldom smiled and, I surmised, had been granted little in the way of a sense of humor. He was certainly not someone with whom I would want to spend any protracted period of time. Part of my frustration stemmed from my being intimidated…it was clear he could win any power struggle and I felt inferior.
I spent much of that first night angry. He certainly did not treat me in the spirit of “Aloha,” the Hawaiian approach to welcome and hospitality. I made a mental list of the ways he could have better responded to my needs as I stood as the guest in his presence.
The second evening I had overcome my anger and began to realize the festival was correct to honor the opening ceremony by not allowing the disruption of people entering late. Nonetheless, I was happy to discover the guards changed stations and I did not have to face my nemesis.
The third night, he was back, but I managed to get to my seat without being noticed. But, as I sat in the bleachers awaiting the final hours of the festival, I realized I was in pain—my frustration and unwillingness to view the world through his eyes had left a wound in the human family. Then I recalled a phrase from the book, Effective Apology by John Kador: “When the relationship is more important than being right.” In that moment, even though my relationship with the guard was temporary, unless I acted, it would remain with me as an emotional scar. Repairing it became more important than finding a way to extract some amount of emotional compensation. I left my seat to search out the man who was to become, in the next moment, my teacher. He recognized me immediately. He looked at me, not knowing what to expect. I held out my hand, looked him in the eye and said, “I was frustrated the other night, and treated you badly. You did not deserve it and I am sorry.” In the next moment, the brightest smile broke across his face. This very stern Hawaiian was smiling and shyly looking at the floor…he suddenly found it difficult to face me. “It’s no problem!” he said as he warmly shook my hand.
So what did he arrive to teach? I learned much from this simple teacher, but the lesson that feels most humbling was about my prejudices. Prejudice simply means to pre-judge. On that third night, when he looked at me with that very genuine, gentle smile I realized that I had not allowed this very human of beings to fully show up in my world. I had placed him in a box into which he certainly did not belong. I also learned that generosity and kindness are sincerely returned, often when you least expect it.