A number of years ago I was driving through rush-hour Toronto traffic—eight lanes in each direction. The traffic was heavy and fast. I was making good time until I got blocked behind a car moving slower than the traffic. The word ‘idiot’ reverberated through my head and my muscles tensed.
Just then another thought smacked my consciousness: “That driver could be my brother.” As I mulled over that uninvited thought, I realized that I didn’t know anything about that driver or his car. Was he a new driver? Was he unaccustomed to driving in such traffic? Did he just break up with his wife? Is he trying to get off the highway? Is he lost? Is he having car trouble? Who was I to judge him an idiot (my knee-jerk word for an incompetent driver)?
That experience of less than 30 seconds had a profound effect on my life. I became much less of a judge and much more of an observer. The shift has also made me much more relaxed about many things in life. Both of these outcomes have served me well in my chosen profession.
There is no such thing as ‘truth’ independent of people’s perceptions. The reality of an event will be perceived by 10 different people in 10 different ways, with each of the 10 believing that what he or she saw was objective reality. If all 10 people were interviewed thoroughly about what they saw, the emerging collage would be closer to reality, but it would still be an interpretation. That’s why we have police investigations and prosecutors and juries. That’s why we have meat producers and meat inspectors.
When it comes to judgments about people, matters become much more complex. Data are more subtle and less directly observable. Our perceptions depend more heavily on our beliefs as observers. That’s why we have politicians and voters.
Most people, most of the time, do the best they can. I have met many people I thought were making poor judgments at the time, be they politicians, service providers, or ex-spouses. I have met many more who I thought were making good judgments. However, by simply observing and waiting I have had to revise my views of people and their programs many times over the years.
Because of this, I am sometimes judged as indecisive or wishy-washy. That’s okay, because I take my own counsel and act on my own schedule.
When I was about 30 years old, I was in an argument with someone about an important issue I had strong feelings about. I lost the argument, but won it at the same time. I don’t remember what it was about; what I do remember is that the other person had better information that I did, and in the process of the argument I changed my mind and came around to his take on the issue.
In losing the argument, something unexpected happened. I felt elated at losing because I had gained a deeper understanding and had moved closer to the truth. I felt alive.
My view of truth seeking shifted: any fool can hold an opinion (make a judgment), but you have to be alive and open to recognize your judgment may be off, to change your mind, or to admit you were wrong about something.
As I look back, I chuckle at the number of times I can see myself in the ‘fool’ category. Do I sometimes still make snap judgments about things? Of course! It’s my right as a human being. But most of time I allow the jury to stay out much longer than I used to. It usually pays off in a better grasp of that nebulous thing we call reality.
I invite you to reflect on your own openness to changing your mind.
Dr. Neill Neill is a registered psychologist in Qualicum Beach. He helps capable people who feel stuck… trauma, relationships, addictions.
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