Well, that could mean that you are curious, intellectually honest, and grounded in a strong sense of self that is not tethered to old and false beliefs to feel secure. Many people feel a sense of shame when they retreat from a position or opinion they hold dear. Once we have a strong vested interest and identification with our thoughts, the incessant need to be right leads us to fight to the death against people who disagree (especially our loved ones), as if our very survival were in jeopardy.
The problem with a mindset that runs observations through a rigid preconceived worldview is that it stifles our growth and kills relationships. And tragically, in the case of the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel in advance of our entry, it caused the death of an entire generation and altered the very course of Jewish history for millennia.
The Fight against Smallness
Jewish sacred texts describe newly created Adam as filling the whole world, but that after the sin of eating the forbidden fruit, he became small. In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, the spies reported back: “We are unable to go up against the people for they are stronger than we….. All the men we saw in it are men of stature…. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”[i] Since the spies were able to completely avoid detection, this was pure projection on their part, a surmised fearful interpretation that was nevertheless reported as an absolute fact of reality. Because the spies’ self-image and misperceptions were so warped, their judgments and conclusions were erroneous and fatal. They suffered from a case of “motivated reasoning.” Unfortunately, such biased thinking is mostly unconscious and pervasive in that we all do it. The good news, however, is that with the proper mindset, it can be prevented.
Soldier versus Scout
In a fascinating Ted talk, Why You Think You’re Right Even if You’re Wrong, Julia Galef describes two mindsets: “Soldier” and “Scout.” Soldiers are sent into battle to defend, protect, and defeat the enemy. The mission of a scout, on the other hand, is not to attack or defend, but to understand. Thus, a scout will map terrain, identify obstacles and threats, and seek out vantage points, in the quest for accurate and honest information. Both the soldier and the scout are essential, with each playing a vital role. Described by Galef as two different mindsets, however, each acts as a metaphor for how all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives. As in all matters of a dual nature, one must know when to be what. Sent by Moses to scout out the land, the spies merely defended their own views and biases, and thus, they strayed from their mission.
Shelach lecha, the command that God gave to Moses to send out the spies, means “send out – for yourself.” Thus, when we act as scouts leaving what is known, going to the unknown, and willingly seeing what is truthfully there, it is really for our benefit.
The next time someone criticizes you, disagrees with you or is just plain different, resist the habitual urge to defend and attack. Rather, look within to see whether there is a grain of truth to the criticism. Consider whether there is another point of view to be had, and for goodness sake, stop being angry at those who are simply not the same as you. And the next time someone upsets you, don’t just write them off, or dismiss their complaints with the easy conclusion that they are wrong or irrational. We all make assumptions that are inaccurate, unfounded, and self-referential, (i.e. I wouldn’t do that; therefore neither should you). Instead, try to find out what is really bugging them. Ask for help in understanding the issue and sincerely inquire as to what you could do to avoid causing them pain.
There are definitely times and situations which call on us to marshal the soldier mindset. It is said that those who stand for nothing will fall for anything. On the other hand, changing our mind in response to a newly emerging truth is not a weakness, but the strength of having an open mind willing to grow. Thus, we can heal from those false beliefs that make us feel small, and we and our relationships can become big, growing into the potential we were meant to have from the beginning of time.
[i] Bamidbar/Numbers 13:31-33.