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.”

Jun 212014
 

I recall a video game, Tetrisphere, which was a variation of Tetris. In the game the player confronted a sphere covered by three-dimensional shapes. The game provided the player with a series of objects similar in shape to those covering the sphere. When you matched a piece with one on the outermost layer of the sphere, it would disappear and reveal a small portion of a level nearer the sphere’s core. The object was to eliminate enough pieces to open the core and release a friendly little robot.

One challenging aspect of the game is the sphere grows with time, making it more difficult for the player to reach the core before time runs out.

From the beginning, Tetrisphere struck me as a powerful metaphor for life. We are continually given experiences of life in the form of challenges, joys, suffering, love and confusion. Each piece of life—a different size, shape and color—is an invitation to fit it into our knowing, or unknowing. When we live these experiences with authenticity and vulnerability, the wisdom we gain tears away a small piece of who we may have thought we were to expose a slightly deeper level of our true selves. The goal of life, perhaps, is to tear away enough of the layers to release into the world the essence of who we are.

If, on the other hand, we allow the experiences of life, especially those that are painful and difficult, to add to the layers that separate us from the core of who we are, it becomes more difficult to discover who we were meant to be.

A call came from a young man who, in that moment, knew little of his self-worth. He had made a decision some months earlier that had extremely unpleasant consequences for loved ones in his life. Because of the pain he had caused, he felt himself a horrible, selfish person—new layers making it more difficult to see himself for who he truly is.

We know that even “poor” decisions are usually made in the best way we know how at the moment of choice. I asked, early in the conversation, if that was true for him. “No!” he insisted. “I knew better…I should never have made that choice.” He told me his heart felt dirty, sullen and hidden.

In the midst of the call, I began to wonder silently why we find it so difficult to offer ourselves the generosity and understanding we offer others. As our relationship developed I began to grasp the overpowering anxiety pervading his life at the time of his fateful decision. It was so strong it clouded his view of life and pointed him to the decision he eventually made. When I asked him about his panic and apprehension, he reluctantly admitted he did, indeed, feel a loss of control over his life. So I asked, if he were to show himself the kindness he would show another, would he be willing to admit that he was indeed a good and kind person, who, in a moment of confusion, made a choice he now rejected. There was a moment of silence after which he said quietly, “Maybe so.” He paused for a moment longer, and then he asked, “Do you think the pain I am feeling is my heart trying to find its way back into the world?”

Even as I write these words, tears well up. I could do nothing in the moments that followed but be in awe of the profundity of his insight. It was one more of life’s experience pointing him to the magnificence of who he is behind the layers of who he is not.