Thursday, January 28, 2010

Changing the Way We Think

After several years of nagging by my daughter, I finally learned how to “text message.” I don’t like it. It’s not how I communicate with sound byte and abbreviated words. I don’t do it any more often than I have to, which is when I want to get hold of her.

My family loved to engage in long philosophical and political discussions. I grew up with a strong emotional investment in interesting conversations so I don’t get along well with texting. I want to see the person I’m talking to and to be able to read their body language in order better to understand what they are saying.

“Texting” is not just a convenient new technology. There’s a possibility it may radically change the way we experience relationships. Communication is what makes us human and communication is visual as well as aural. Texting may be convenient in a frantic world with too little time but I worry about what we may lose in the process. But to some degree, I’ve been forced to change the way I think to fit in.

I’ve had a computer and used email from the earliest time they were available. Many people of my generation, including my sister, still refuse to get with their tech. It’s very frustrating. One of my best friends, an Episcopal priest, absolutely refused to use email. I would get a long handwritten letter from her once or twice a year. Finally her bishop ordered all his priests to get email. So she had her secretary get email.

Why are we so resistant to change? Change is usually accepted by younger generations but resisted by older ones. It’s always been like this. The longer we live with an idea or a certain way of doing things, the more emotionally invested we become in it. Younger generations often lack these strong emotional investments so they are more open to change.

We live in a world where being uprooted and relocated has become the norm as opposed to an older time when communities and extended families remained intact for generations. As a result, we have fewer emotional investments than before in certain things. Even so, as humans we become emotionally invested in ideas as well as technologies. Especially so if those things have to do with our security and well-being.

It doesn’t really matter if those technologies and ideas no longer make sense in the larger context of our life. Emotional attachments to things come about long before ideas about things. In religion, in our psychological makeup, in politics, we can become so emotionally attached to an idea that the prospect of having that idea challenged is extremely unsettling. If you’ve believed all your life that the salvation of your soul depends on believing, like Alice in Wonderland, in six impossible things before breakfast, or that a particular form of political “ism:” is the only hope for the nation, you’ll believe in that thing on a torture rack, no matter how much circumstances or your intelligence may suggest otherwise. If as an adult you believe that maintaining a destructive relationship is necessary to your survival, you’ll resist all effort by friends and family to counsel and help.

It’s hard for anyone to evaluate new evidence that contradicts long held opinions. Even scientists struggle with this problem, especially when the work of a lifetime on a particular problem that is believed to be solved is suddenly challenged by some young upstart with a Blackberry. Einstein refused to believe in the claims of the new quantum mechanics which is now accepted theory in physics because, in his words, “God doesn’t place dice with the Universe,” Well, it appears that She does.

Relationships that we want to protect are those that give meaning and bring joy to our life; relationships with people, relationships with our work, relationships with our ideas. But time and changes in circumstances can render even good relationships less meaningful, less joyful, even destructive or contrary to our best interests.

There is a necessity at the heart of what we believe and know. But everything is transient, temporary, an idea that is very hard for us to accept.

A Zen Buddhist aphorism says, “Everything is a trap.”

Dr. Phil says, “How’s that working for you?”

My grandmother was a devout Southern Baptist. One day she came home from church excited about a lesson in her Sunday School class on Genesis, the first book in the Bible. Dr. Henry Kincaid, her pastor who taught the class, had told them that they might regard the creation stories in Genesis as parables. Now this was in the 1950’s, before the conservative literalists had hijacked her church.

“Isn’t that an interesting idea?” she said. There was nothing wrong with parables in her belief system. Jesus did all his teaching in parables (stories that were intended to give people a different perspective on an idea) and no one was expected to regard parables as literal accounts of events that had taken place. Rather, the point was to be found in the meaning of the parable, not in its literal interpretation. The parables were based on ordinary events in life that everyone could relate to in some way or other. The idea was to discover the meaning in the parable that could apply to one’s life in some way or other.

Her pastor had given her an important new tool for evaluating her religion. He had given her a vision of something new that could shed light and reveal meaning.

She was a remarkable woman who not only was very intelligent, but who exhibited in my opinion the best that her Christian faith had to offer; a gentle kindness for everyone and a deep compassion for those less fortunate.

I struggled intellectually with my faith, even as a youngster. Eventually I joined the Unitarian church. It was a coming out time for my brain although I later returned to the Christian faith I was brought up in, but with a totally different perspective. I liked to tell my Unitarian friends that it was my Southern Baptist grandmother who made a Unitarian out of me.

In her small town, there was a disreputable old fellow that died, who never darkened the door of a church and stayed drunk most of the time inflicting misery on his family. When he died, seemingly unrepentant, she was sure that he had had a death bed conversion experience. In her compassion, she had no intention of assigning anyone to hell. She always tried to find some sort of “out” for them.

People in primitive “dark” Africa who had never heard of Jesus? Well, she said, they were still in a state of grace with God because of their unintentional ignorance the same as children. Not a very politically correct idea but this was in the 1950’s. I decided then and there that if my grandmother was so forgiving and compassionate, God surely couldn’t be any less so. Somehow, there had to be a universal “out” for everyone, and a universal “in”.

As we grow older, the ability to change the way we think becomes harder and harder because our investment in what we think becomes larger and larger. Usually it takes something out of the ordinary, perhaps even catastrophic to impel us into significant change.

A new vision.


Our own pain.