“Man’s mind, once stretched by a different idea, never regains the original dimensions.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes
When you look at this picture, what is the very first thing that you see? (There is NOT a right or wrong answer, by the way...)
A range of mountains?
A dodo bird?
Something else entirely?
Most people who look at this typically, at first glance, see a duck… or a rabbit. After a bit of time studying the picture, most are able to see one or more other figures. For some that happens pretty quickly; for others it takes longer. Others never can see more than that one thing they initially saw.
In order to see another object, we have to totally let go of what we first saw, consider that there MIGHT be some other way to look at the collection of bland spaces and colored in spaces and set about looking for something different. It is impossible to see more than one thing at a time. Since this picture is just a duck (or a rabbit), it is relatively easy to let go of what we first saw and then be able to see the other. I wish this were true in the political and religious world; not much hope there, but more on that later.
Whatever you and I initially saw, the duck or the rabbit, the answer came from our subconscious brain. It represents just one of our (many) brain’s biases. The picture we saw came from that place where all the rest of our biases reside. Our subconscious brain makes about 70,000 judgments like this every day. It decides if it sees a pattern in all the data that comes its way, and if so, makes up a meaning for what it thinks it sees. All this happens at a level that we have no clue that it is going on. Just like the invisible programs that are allowing me to write this, the same level of invisibility cloaks all of this activity of our subconscious brains.
Our subconscious mind looks at all the stimuli, looking for a pattern (such as the lines and spaces in the sketch above) and interprets the data. If our subconscious interprets what it sees as a threat, our fear is triggered. Fear of imminent death. That fear triggers and drives subsequent behaviors that fall into one of the three classic survival strategies; we get big, get little, or run away. As adults, we may not literally do these things, but we may use our adult versions of these same basic survival strategies. If the interpretation of the stimuli by our unconscious is that what it “sees” is not a threat, it either dismisses it and moves on, or leans in for a closer look.
Researchers suggest that those of us who easily and quickly can see both figures have more “liberal” brains. They are referring to the dictionary definition of “liberal” (think flexible) vs. the political connotation in the U.S. For those of us who took longer, our brains are wired to be more “conservative" (think inflexible) to move off what we first saw and on to the other figure. Whether our brain is flexible or inflexible is wired into our brain structure. We were born that way.
To be clear, there is not necessarily a direct link between liberal brains and the U.S.A’s political connotation of liberal. There are people who have a liberal or flexible brain (a brain able to see and understand many sides of an issue) who are politically, socially or religiously conservative. This is also true of people with a conservative or inflexible brain identifying as politically, socially or religiously liberal.
So, what does any of this have to do with our most recent election? Let’s imagine for a moment that the above set of shadings, lines and open spaces represents the candidate who ended up being president. Let’s imagine that those who voted for him saw a duck. And let’s imagine that those who did not vote for him saw a rabbit when they looked at the sketch. Those of us with “conservative” brains (regardless of who we voted for) cannot believe that others don’t see what we see: THE truth (when actually it is not THE truth, it is our bias). We gather others who see what we see, which, to our satisfaction, confirms our bias. (Sometimes there are large groups of people who see the same thing. We call these political parties, or a specific religion or a particular denomination,). I’ve jokingly said, though it is probably truer than I would like to admit, that my friends are those people who share the same delusions that I do about what is true, real, logical, right, wrong and what is not. It takes a “liberal” brain to be able to easily and equally see more than one side of anything.
What I see happening in our country at this moment is that these conservative brains (which include both political liberals and political conservatives because remember their brains are just as inflexible, no matter what side they are on), are basically going to war with and against those who see things differently as expressed in this case by their vote. What the warring does is entrench those attacked into using all their energy to defend rather than examine their beliefs.
This significantly reduces the possibility that they will ever see anything differently. Science tells us that in situations where I am confronted by someone who sees things differently than I do, that experience tends to reinforce what I originally saw or believed, rather than open me up to considering that something else may be true also. Sadly, I know of friendships, even familial relationships that have been severely damaged and even apparently destroyed lately because of such encounters between political liberals and conservatives. Both, in my opinion, are equally rigid, inflexible and hard-headed and don’t realize it.
If there is to be any meaningful healing through all of this that we as individuals and a country have suffered through recently, those of us who have more “liberal” brains (regardless of who we voted for) will need to take this moment in time, seize the initiative that the recent election has provided, go to the people who saw something different than we did (because they voted differently) and have them show us what they are seeing. Ideally, they would provide themselves the same opportunity (to see the world through our eyes). The greatest danger in listening to someone who thinks differently though and sees differently when we are both looking at the same exact thing, is that there is a possibility that we will be influenced by what we hear, and perhaps changed forever, Remember that subconscious brain? It doesn’t like that kind of change. Especially if such a change might undercut the “This-is-who-I-am-and-what-I-believe-about-myself-and-how-the-world-works.” that we have so carefully constructed. If it is a friend or other loved one who saw a duck, (in this case, why it would be logical to vote for Donald Trump) when we see a rabbit (in this case why in the world would anyone think that voting for him would be a good idea) it is hard to accept that we didn’t know them as well as we thought we did, and that is threatening to us.
The prohibition within some families and relationships that we not discuss religion or politics, isn’t because we shouldn’t, it’s that we don’t know how. Listening, really listening, and deeply listening to someone who sees a duck when we KNOW what they are looking at is a rabbit is very very difficult. Listening to them doesn’t mean that we stay quiet until they stop talking and then we start with our counterpoints. It means listening so well that we allow ourselves to enter the world where they are and see it through their eyes. My experience has been when I listen that well, I eventually totally understand why someone does what they do, votes for who they vote for, worships (or doesn’t) the god they do. Remember, just as in the example above, to see the “duck”, we must totally let go (at least temporarily while we are listening) of our certainty that our “rabbit” is the truth and in doing so, risk being changed forever.
This kind of listening, I believe, is the only way we will move towards the healing and understanding that the election made so clear we, as a country, need so badly. This moment in time presents a unique opportunity to do so. Don’t be surprised if they don’t want to discuss it. More than likely when they have risked that in the past, they’ve been blamed, shamed and attacked (among other things) by those of us who weren’t really listening. What we were really doing was waiting for them to expose themselves so we could use what they said (or forgot to say) against them in an attempt to show them that we are right and convert them to our way of seeing. We pretended that we wanted to listen and understand, when our agenda really was to have them see the duck (or rabbit) that we see.
The challenge? Take this opportunity in time to seek out and listen, really listen to someone who voted differently than you. Practice viewing the world from their position. That means entering the conversation with the attitude that they may very well be right, and you may very well be wrong. It’s called a “Beginner’s Mind”. It will take a liberal mind to be able to do this. Those of us who have conservative minds will either never consider doing this, or find it next to impossible to do. But practice doing this can move our brains from inflexibility towards flexibility.
The sad part is that we don’t have to do this. We don’t have to listen to someone who experiences our world differently. Time will move along. We can stay at odds, and we miss the opportunity to change things that need changing. The divisions and polarities will continue and harden.
I remember the first time I realized that people "I thought I knew", actually had a different set of values. I was a very young (22-year-old) teacher and I was participating in an in-service where we did an exercise called "Alligator River" (I still use it in my workshops, by the way). I just couldn't believe that some of my fellow teachers, who I thought I knew well, liked and trusted so much, counted as my best friends, had different answers to the question "Who in the story would you say is most despicable and who was the most innocent?”. It burst my bubble of "knowing".
The second influence was an exercise I did in psychology classes I taught. Every Friday my students would write down topics they wanted to talk about such as abortion, hunting for sport, women's liberation, the Vietnam War, etc. We would put all the topics in a hat and I would pull one out. I would then ask everyone who was willing, to go sit in a section of a circle of chairs that would represent "For", "Against", "Sort of For" and Sort of Against" and present their thinking as to why they were taking the position that they were on the topic. I would go sit on the side that had the fewest supporters and argue from that perspective to make sure that both positions were fairly represented. At any time during the discussion, people could change where they were sitting if the arguments that they were hearing caused them to change their minds. As a result, I would have to move from "Pro" to "Con" on the same topic, within the same hour, to help maintain a balanced discussion. In order to do that, I had to suspend my beliefs in order to honestly and respectfully represent and speak from the minority position of the moment. So, though my bubble was very small originally, it grew immeasurably as I learned more and more how others came to the conclusions that they did.
The final blow to my "knowing" was a therapist who one day told me that everything I thought I was doing to let my kids know that above all else, I loved them, was giving them the exact opposite message. I just couldn't accept that. If that was true, then what I “knew” about the most important relationships in my life up to that moment in time, was all wrong. She'd met me once. Never met them. Two weeks later (thankfully not two decades later) exactly what she had suggested was true, came true. From my 4- year-old daughter came the words, "You don't love me and never have".
That's when I surrendered my "knowing for sure" self, and became a life-long "wonderer". I still find this challenging because my "knower" doesn't give up easily. However, all of this gives me hope - for myself and for anyone who is willing to listen to and look at the view from the "other side". To do so takes courage, but it is possible. If we are going to get better as a people as a country, as family members, as friends, we’re going to need to learn how to do this.
Over the years, I have practiced this. The results have been stunning, every time I have approached a person or a situation with the frame of mind “what he is doing makes perfect sense to him, it seems really stupid to me, but I want to understand rather than judge him” it has been life-changing. For the better. For both of us.
If you can’t imagine doing this with a real person, consider this. In one of the college classes I am currently teaching, one of the assignments for students is to watch or listen to a news program that is as much different from their way of thinking as possible. To listen to this program as if what they are hearing is the “truth”, rather than with the judgmental making silent counterpoint arguments or, “let me compare this to what I know and judge it or ridicule it”. Doing this is a way of practicing opening up the inflexible part of their brain (BTW, even the most flexible brains are not TOTALLY flexible).
Do this only if you want to be a part of the solution, only if you want to make the world a better place to live in, leave for our children. Do this only if you can manage the fear we all have of being changed by listening. Let me know how that goes……
I once heard that there are no contradictions in life; only lack of perspective. In other words, there are no inconsistencies, there is nothing that doesn’t make sense, there are no behaviors that are irrational, they only seem that way because my picture of how things are is too small. I’d invite you to try it out.