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.