Varying experiences lead to different ideas and opinions for different people. By embracing this fact, you'll find that there are things to learn from everyone.
Have you ever talked with someone about a shared experience and found that you each remembered it very differently? Perhaps you’re both absolutely certain that you remember it correctly and the other person is mis-remembering. It’s happened to me many times. In fact, as my wife and I get older and grow the number of our shared experiences it seems to happen more often.
Memories are a funny thing in that way; they exist only in the mind of the individual experiencing them and, as time goes by they evolve. Memories are constructs of the mind. Every time we reach back and access a memory, we change it based on the collection of experiences we have had since the memory was stored away in our brains. Since every individual has built a unique set of experiences, even shared memories evolve differently within separate minds. One person might be right and the other wrong.
As off-putting as it may feel to know that cherished memories may not reflect reality, there’s also reason to rejoice at the notion. After all, the exact reason we remember things differently than someone else does (a unique set of experiences) is the very thing that makes us different from them. For all that we have in common, no one else in the world experiences life in exactly the same way as you. Those experiences result in different strategies, opinions and ideas. And those differences create extraordinary opportunities to learn from others.
“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
This is a difficult suggestion for many people to accept. It takes serious humility to appreciate that there are ideas and opinions just as valid as our own that stand in stark contrast to ours. Sadly, I see social media posts all the time that say something like “If you think (insert opinion), you should unfriend me now.” It’s sentiments like this that make social media the great echo-chamber of our day. Instead of discouraging different opinions, we should encourage them and exercise our own critical thinking skills to understand why they think differently and perhaps learn something from it.
For example, there is a great deal of “discourse” that devolves into name calling and shaming. One tribe likes to label the others as driven by hate or greed or some other negative motivation. In the echo chamber, it’s easy to jump to those conclusions. Those who share our opinion will back us up after all. But what if it isn’t hate or greed or laziness that motivates their opinion? What if its fear or anger brought about by a past experience? Perhaps it’s something else entirely.
If we can accept that individual’s thoughts and opinions have been influenced through their unique experiences and have the humility to acknowledge that their experiences are just as valid as ours, then it’s possible to start a dialogue and try to understand them. It’s either that, or call them names and filter them out of your world, closing yourself off to a breadth of experience that you simply don’t have. Put in this context, the choice seems obvious.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of learning this lesson from a man who said that sometimes the greatest magic words you can utter during a heated debate are, “You might be right.” It’s humble. It doesn’t acknowledge that you’re wrong. And it allows you to quiet the conversation and seriously consider why they think the way they do.
At least, I think that’s what he said… A lot has happened since then. I may be mis-remembering.
The following is an excerpt from my book “The Way of the Harvest: 15 Lessons on Reaping a Life of Abundance". Click here to order your copy.
In 2004 a projectile crashed through the windshield of Victoria Ruvolo’s car and smashed into her, breaking nearly every bone in her face. She would be in a medically induced coma for weeks while undergoing surgeries to rebuild it. What was it that caused such damage? A 20 pound frozen turkey, purchased with a stolen credit card, hurled from an overpass by an 18 year old boy. It was a miracle that she survived the ordeal, but what she did with her new life is one of the most profound and touching lessons on forgiveness that I’ve ever seen. Victoria Ruvolo asked the district attorney to work out a plea deal for a lenient sentence, which ultimately amounted to 6 months in jail and 5 years’ probation. She forgave the young man who caused her so much pain. At the sentencing hearing, Ruvolo embraced the young man and instructed him to “do good with your life.”
I have imagined what it must have been like to sit in the courtroom when she hugged that boy. I can’t fathom that there could have been many dry eyes; the poignant example of forgiveness she showed in that moment must have been overwhelming to witness. But why did she do it? The course of her life had been inexorably altered by the thoughtless act of a careless young man. Few would have thought her wrong if she would have cursed him and pleaded the court for a much stiffer sentence. But she didn’t. Ruvolo later said, “If I hadn't let go of that anger, I'd be consumed by this need for revenge. Forgiving him helps me move on.”
To her, forgiveness meant forgetting the past and moving forward with life. Here, the phrase “move on” means to stop dwelling in the anger. In my mind, this is a necessity for a person to have lasting happiness.
Why do we hold grudges in the first place? It’s a confusing question, and a difficult one to answer. It boils down to two things: 1) the grudge becomes part of our identity; 2) our desire for compassion and empathy as the victim of a wrong. We hold a righteous authority for our feelings of victim-hood, and therefore believe we are entitled to be treated a bit differently, a bit better. Nancy Colier wrote in Psychology Today:
We have a definition and a grievance that carries weight. To let go of our grudge, we have to be willing to let go of our identity as the “wronged” one, and whatever strength, solidity, or possible sympathy and understanding we receive through that “wronged” identity. We have to be willing to drop the “I” who was mistreated and step into a new version of ourselves, one we don’t know yet, that allows the present moment to determine who we are, not past injustice…our grudge, and the identity that accompanies it, is an attempt to get the comfort and compassion we didn’t get in the past, the empathy for what happened to us at the hands of this “other,” the experience that our suffering matters. As a somebody who was victimized, we are announcing that we are deserving of extra kindness and special treatment. Our indignation and anger is a cry to be cared about and treated differently—because of what we have endured.
What this means is that grudges are our natural way of trying to feel better. The problem is, they don’t work. Grudges hold us in place; they stifle our growth and ultimately suppress true happiness. They weigh us down.
What are your thoughts on forgiveness? How has it helped you? Please leave your comments below!
Critical thinking and humility are the seeds of wisdom.
It’s a funny thing that so many people have misunderstood the lyrics to the classic Jimi Hendrix song Purple Haze. No, he wasn’t talking about kissing someone. “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” are of course the correct lyrics. If you’ve never heard that incorrect interpretation before, don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing it every time you hear the song from now on. When I was a kid I misunderstood the lyrics to Steve Winwood’s song “Higher Love” and 30 years later I still find myself singing “bring me a pile of love” every time I hear it. Even though I know that what I’m singing is wrong, I still do it. It takes effort to correct myself.
The same is true for so many other things in life. Experiences, ideas and strategies become so ingrained in us that changing them takes real effort, even if we know they need changed. It’s this tendency that makes critical thinking such an important skill to develop, and humility an important trait to cultivate. To improve at anything, we have to be willing to question what we think we know. It’s this very willingness to think critically that serves as the seed for growing wisdom. To gain wisdom requires thought and humility. It means accepting that, at the very least, we might be wrong.
Unfortunately for many people that’s simply too difficult a task. “The invisible gorilla” experiment has become relatively well known for demonstrating how fixated humans can become fixated on a single factor while missing out on the bigger picture. In the experiment a viewer watches a video of six people, three of whom are in white shirts and three in black shirts as they pass basketballs between each other. While watching, the viewer must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. In the midst of this, someone in a gorilla suit saunters into the middle of the action, faces the camera, thumps their chest and then leaves. The costumed actor spends a total of nine seconds on screen. Here’s the kicker: only half of the viewers ever actually see the gorilla! You can watch the video here.
The lesson in all of this is that very often we don’t see the entire picture. There are billions of human perspectives, why is mine the only correct one? We miss the gorilla’s meandering about in plain sight. Not only do we hear “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky”, we embrace the error and sing along with it anyway! Without thought and effort, we keep making the same mistakes.
The longer we’ve lived with a certain set of beliefs, the harder they are to think about in new ways. And, if we can’t think about them we certainly won’t be able to change the ones that ought to be changed. Don’t get me wrong, convictions can be a very good thing. Having a specific set of beliefs to guide our lives provides direction and comfort. What I’m suggesting is that developing the ability to critically think through them is a major factor in personal growth because it forces us to consider alternative perspectives.
Here’s a challenge: over the course of the next week try and force yourself to understand a perspective that’s counter to your own. Try and truly understand it. You may very well find that your opinion doesn’t change and that’s perfectly ok! But, going through the practice of critically thinking through it should produce a greater degree of empathy for others and a better understanding of why you hold the opinion you hold. You’ll be wiser for it.
Now, I’ll leave you to ponder. In the meantime, ‘scuse me while I kiss the sky.
Thinking of things as absolutely good or evil can stifle our critical thinking and prevent us from learning valuable lessons.
Dave was a troubled man. His family owned a business that he hated working at and he rebelled. He began smoking when he was very young and then started doing other drugs. He dropped out of school and was later arrested for burglary. He began using methamphetamines in his early twenties. He fought, abused alcohol and stole, ultimately spending 15 years of his life in prison.
But Dave also started a business that helped rehabilitate criminals, giving them an opportunity to earn an honest living for a respected company. His empathy towards a segment of the population that often receives very little opportunity has given them the chance to work in positions ranging from entry level to managerial. His vision and effort has blessed hundreds of lives in a way that many of them never thought was possible.
Later in life, Dave had a mental breakdown ending in a fight with police officers attempting to restrain him. He was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and later, he sold the company that he founded making him a multi-millionaire.
You may already be familiar with the story of Dave Dahl, the founder of Dave’s Killer Bread. He’s lived a unique life, at different times straddling the divide between good and evil, at least in his actions. Which begs the question, is Dave good or evil? I say neither. Or both. Dave Dahl is an extreme example of what it means to be human, and he’s someone that we can learn a great deal from if we can resist the temptation to draw a knee-jerk conclusion of the man as completely evil. Or completely good.
Humans like to think in terms of absolutes; we seek black and white in a gray world and often fail to see the value in the imperfect. We see countless acts of good or evil but fail to see that the individuals themselves are usually quite gray; they’re neither an absolute good nor are they an absolute evil. They’re human.
One of the unfortunate consequences of this absolutist, black and white way of thinking is that we deprive ourselves of the education that comes from actually thinking through things. Once we categorize someone as “bad” no additional thought is needed. Confirmation bias ensures that we’ll ignore the good and embrace the bad in everything they do. So much so that even the most courageous and benevolent acts of someone we deem as “bad” are tossed aside. Similarly, bad acts from the people we admire are discounted as out of character and therefore carry no weight. We viewed them as “bad” once and so any subsequent goodness is tossed out. We viewed them as “good” once so any subsequent badness is tossed out. We selectively choose among the good and the bad in an effort to justify our existing opinions.
This tendency is especially pervasive in the world of politics. My side is good, the other side is evil. If you voted for him you’re good, if you voted for her you’re evil.
Here’s the point: Someone who is impressed with Dave Dahl’s business acumen, or his charity towards those with a criminal past might offer well deserved praise. They’re more willing to learn from his good and bad sides. How does someone with a negative view of him respond? They might say something like, “Yeah, but he did all of those bad things.” The implication being that applauding his virtues is wrong because Dave is an evil man. By diminishing his goodness and elevating his badness, these people are cheating themselves out of an education. Accept people as they come, and ask yourself, what can I learn from them?