When you’re absolutely sure, remember you’ve been sure before

Marcus Aurelius - I will happily change

I couldn’t stand Professor Bauman. I took a philosophy class from him where he constantly picked holes in his students deepest convictions and forced them to ask really difficult questions. I got his point–he wanted us to think carefully with open minds–but whenever one of us would ask him, “What do YOU believe?” he would refuse to tell. I couldn’t have been more sure that he was a bad person for teaching that way: Nobody should lead people to question themselves and then refuse to help them reaffirm their beliefs in the truth–or at least what I saw as the truth.

Now my mind has changed completely. I think Professor Bauman and another similar professor I also disliked for the same reason were two of the most valuable teachers I ever had. I got out into the real world where I was confronted every day by fiercely differing viewpoints, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I realized then that the unquestioning certainty and the relative lack of questioning that kids like me grew up with, was the worst possible preparation for dealing with life as an adult. Now I’m embarrassed that I was so vocally opposed to his teaching.

Who knows? Someday I could change my mind about this again.

The other day my brother-in-law sent me something I wrote as an over-confident teenager vehemently arguing for a viewpoint I no longer hold–he texted: “9 years is a long time.” It was equally hilarious and cringeworthy.

 

I’m not the only one who has done a complete 180 on big life things. In fact, a lot of people change their minds again and again and again.

Antony Flew was a champion of atheism who drastically changed his mind at the end of his life and wrote a book arguing for the existence of a god. Dan Barker was a Christian preacher for a long time but is now an atheist activist.

Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential philosophers and political economist in the 1800s, changed his mind completely about his core economic beliefs. According to his autobiography, his reading of romantic poets caused him to question the commitment to classical economics he had held since childhood, eventually leading him to a much more liberal viewpoint.

 

Here’s the thing. I was ABSOLUTELY SURE. So were Flew and Barker and John Stuart Mill.

What’s something that you used to be absolutely sure of that you no longer believe? I know there’s something.

 

I think it can do wonders for your life and relationships to remind yourself regularly that you used to be absolutely certain of things you no longer believe. That you’ve completely changed your mind about something you never used to question. That you now believe or do something you used to call “crazy” when you saw it in others.

When we forget that we have so drastically changed our minds before, we don’t consider that we might drastically change them again.

And when we are so certain there’s not a chance we’re wrong, we don’t easily learn, we frustrate people we talk to, and we miss out on the wisdom we could find in others whose different experiences have led them to see things we don’t see.

If I always talk to you as if I absolutely know that I am right and you are dead wrong, someday I’m going to have to eat my own words.

The more sure I am that I’m right about something, the more carefully I need to remember that I may someday realize I am wrong.

~

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare


P.S. If you’re nerdy like me and like reading, check out this little gem from John Locke, an influential thinker from the 17th century–talking about being respectful in argument, honestly admitting uncertainty and allowing for uncertainty in others:

[After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, he says that the right use of this consideration] “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth, and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenants presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of. It would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that anyone should readily and obsequiously quit their own opinion and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again and, recalling what is out of his mind, examine the particulars to see on which side the advantage lies. And if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case, and we should take it amiss if others should prescribe to us what points we should study. And if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenants which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident and of an unquestionable certainty, or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him. How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary, especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated? We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse, because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds? Or of the falsehood of all he condemns? Or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds in this fleeting stage of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. There is reason to think that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.” (Quote taken from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy)

I Think, But I Don’t Know

I grew up very smart, confident, and passionate. I thought very deeply, came to the right conclusions, and cared so much about everyone in my life that I had to help them see my conclusions, too. I never genuinely considered I might be getting stuff wrong until I had a big enough crush on a girl to listen when she told me I didn’t have all the answers.

What’s funny is that years later, the majority of big things I so confidently knew and so passionately tried to help other people understand–I no longer see the same way.

We all have our perspectives and our perceptions. We can’t help that they are very limited. And we can’t help but act according to them.

 

Seeing my own illusion

I remember one time I flew to another state to visit my recently married sister and brother-in-law. My sister and I had been extremely close friends for a long time and cared deeply for each other, so we were excited. But I was also there, more importantly, to visit the girl I was dating. The schedule was lopsided significantly in favor of girlfriend time. Later, my sister expressed that she was a little hurt by how the visit played out, and I just couldn’t understand. She supported my priorities but felt frustrated that it was very different than she expected. She had the impression that I was there to spend a few days with them, too. But I spent less time than expected with them, and when I was there I wasn’t exactly present. Again–and to my sister’s credit–she didn’t think my priorities were wrong. She just wished I had decided and communicated initially that I wouldn’t be spending much time with them. It would have saved her some disappointment. TO me, her feelings seemed a little selfish and unreasonable.

It wasn’t until years later when I experienced similar scenarios, but with roles reversed–I was the one with expectations too high, missing out on people I loved–that I finally understood that my sister was completely right. I wasn’t wrong, but she wasn’t either. I was so sure she was seeing things inaccurately, but she wasn’t. And I just was not in a place with my focus and priorities at the time where I could truly see her perspective. But years later, when I was in her position, I also felt a little ignored, mislead, and taken for granted. And it didn’t feel good.

I was so sure. Saw things so clearly. And I was thinking very deeply and had the best intentions. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that there was a completely different way to look at it. And this is just one example. There are a hundred more, and I’m sure you have plenty as well. Times you took a dogmatic stand, only to look back some time later in embarrassment.

Do you see the old lady? Or the young lady? Which one is the right one?

The problem is not that I took a stand or believed what I believed. The problem is not that I acted on my perceptions. The problem was what happens when I don’t recognize that there may be other perspectives–just as valid, just as clear.

This idea gives a deeper meaning to the term “Self-Centered.”

Sometimes we do what seem to us to be the greatest, kindest, most caring thing. But because it’s born out of our narrow perspective, because our focus is completely on our own Self’s perception, without attention to another’s interpretation, we can leave a path of hurt and confusion. We can act passionately in one direction, completely missing the collateral damage we’re doing in another direction.

 

Why do we see many things so clearly, but so differently?

For one very simple reason: We’re different people. I’m not you and you’re not me. I grew up in an extremely black-and-white home, preoccupied with ethics and judging whether we’re getting things right or wrong. Maybe you grew up in a similar home, but experienced so much hurt that you threw out all standards as causing dysfunction and depression.

Or maybe you grew up in a very chill home where good intentions were assumed, self-esteem was encouraged, and time and energy were devoted to free creativity and expression of individuality. Maybe this was a positive thing. Or maybe there was too much obsession with freedom, and you couldn’t hold your siblings responsible for just being honest and treating you with respect.

I’ve had a quarter of a century of experiences, shaping my focus and my understanding–my perspectives and perceptions. I’ve had very unique experiences leaving me with unique needs and unique sensitivities, unique priorities and unique comfort zones.

Consider this example: Two people look at the same religious organization. The organization does a lot of good for people and gives a lot of hope, but there are a number of people involved in leading it for selfish reasons. One person sees it as a breeding ground for judgement, hurt, and disappointment. Another person sees it as a vehicle to bring hope to unfortunate and hurting people in the community. Both people are completely correct, but both people will think, speak, and act completely differently towards the organization.

 

This CAN’T and SHOULDN’T be avoided.

A simple solution is opening up your mind and starting to see everything through your neighbors’ lenses. Problem is, you’re not going to get their lens quite right, either. And even if you could, there’s another neighbor whose perspective you won’t have the time to consider as well.

Refusing to take a stand for anything just because you don’t know everything just results in a crippled world, a world where nobody can help each other. Maybe my help isn’t quite right.

Imagine a world where nobody stood up to slavery or persecution because there’s a chance the “other side” might see something you can’t see.

 

So what SHOULD be done?

What if we tried living every single day with a deep awareness, acceptance, and appreciation for the huge variation in yours and my perspectives? What if I always kept in mind that you may have just as clear a perception of something as I do, but you may be seeing it differently?

A few things may result…

  • When it seems like I hurt you, but I know I wasn’t wrong, I’ll try to take the time to figure out why you’re hurting and see if we can fix it together.
  • When you see that I’ve latched onto an idea that is bringing weakness and sadness into my daily life, like a self-defeating attitude about myself, you may be able to help me, because I may actually grant that you see a real thing in me that I’m not seeing.
  • When I could do with a change of mind about a big subject, a respectful, constructive discussion can take place where we both come out better educated and appreciating each other.
  • I don’t have a subconscious need to control everything, to make sure people are doing what I need or want them to do, to get you to live life my way, because I realize your way includes some strong and helpful perspectives I can’t give you.
  • I can let you do you, with the peace of mind that all my solutions for you probably aren’t the right ones anyway.
  • I can freely and happily admit that I am just doing my best and don’t have all the answers, instead of feeling like a fraud, trying to hide all my doubts and insecurities.
  • I can ask for help because not having it all together is only a weakness to those who think they can have it all together.

 

At your funeral, people are going to remember you–people who have their own lenses.

Will they remember someone arrogant, who was sure they knew best, always focused on getting their own way, and always trying to fix other people?

Or will they remember someone humble, compassionate, and open-minded–someone who instead of judging whether others’ feelings were valid or invalid, just honored their feelings and beliefs as theirs? Someone who instead of trying to control the people they cared about just made sure to be there for them?