Sunday, November 2, 2008

What If. . .

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of The Ancient One's graduate education back in the '60s was learning to be a skeptic. In the process of becoming a critical analyst of the world around me, I learned to never accept anything at face value. While there was, perhaps, too much emphasis on gathering empirical evidence at the expense of expressing values, I was imbued with a deep rooted suspicion of any viewpoint whose advocates claimed that they had the "absolute truth." This skepticism addressed all aspects of life, including politics and religion.

This mindset was bolstered by what I observed around me. I remember decades ago when students of mine working in the offices of state legislators in New York and, later, Illinois, I would ask them to interpret what they saw during various political battles. Typically, one student would say that he knew the truth because he was there. Then another student would disagree, saying something else had happened of which he was certain because he was there too! On and on it went. Gradually the students realized that each had experienced a "different reality" based on where they working in the capitol. Each reality was affected by the legislator the student worked for; democrat or republican, assemblyman or senator, leadership or rank and file. In fact, there were as many realities as there were students in the room. Students learned that they had to go beyond what they saw or heard and try to place the entire experience in a broader perspective.

During the Vietnam era when students, as well as most adults, had passionate feelings about the war, The Ancient One asked a simple question to help his students understand what it meant to be skeptical and analytical. I never encouraged them to alter their beliefs even if I disagreed with them. I urged them to continue their work in support of those beliefs. But, I suggested, whenever you fighting for what you passionately believe is right, always ask, somewhere in the corner of your mind, the question: "What if I am wrong?"

Those who claim they have a corner on the truth and are absolutely right are the major contributors to polarization in society. Too much of the discrimination and killing that goes on in the world is caused by those who "know they are right," who cannot accept any opposing view as being legitimate, who cannot live in harmony with people who believe differently than they do. This has always been so.

Why is The Ancient One rambling on like this? Because in this political year, I see the advocates of absolutism all around me. I see it in the presidential campaign. I see it in local elections. I see it in the campaign on Proposition 8 here in California. In truth, I have seen it dominate political rhetoric in this country for much too long! The level of divisiveness in this world threatens this optimist's ability to have much hope for the future.

All I ask of those who have the authority to make decisions that affect the quality (and equality) of life of others is that they remember to ask themselves, at least once every day, as they pursue their goals, "WHAT IF I'M WRONG?"


Charles Gramlich said...

A great question. I will use this with my students too. I often ask myself that question.

savannah said...

sadly, too few people even consider the possibility, sugar. i'm glad you and charles taught the concept of critical thinking to your students. don't give into despair, this world needs hopeful and thoughtful people such as yourself! xoxo

Eric Valentine said...

Very good meaningful post Leon, I enjoyed the read. Having lived a thousand years myself..... of course you are right on my friend.. :)