Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Difficulties of Being Nonjudgmental and Open-minded in a Judgmental and Opinionated World

Gateway path that seemingly narrows down

Do not judge a book by its cover and don't be so judgmental, we are often told. It is wrong to have preconceived notions about something or someone, and we should keep an open mind about everything and everybody. Easier said than done.

First of all, as we are growing up, parents are pushing us to have an opinion. Which one do you like and what do you think about this or that. I think every parent would like their children to be able to be a person with their own characteristics, not a zombie that simply follows orders (though as a parent myself, sometimes I would not mind the zombie version of a child!).

If the children have not made up their own minds, they would face more serious challenges during the formative school years. Teachers may tell you how to do things, but again a good teacher would want you to become independent, have an opinion and start thinking in a critical manner.

I believe this is a struggle that certain socialist and dictatorial countries face. They have taught their kids to follow orders and to do as they are told. For many, language learning, for example, consists in memorizing grammar concepts and vocabulary.

But what about creativity and imagination? Those are two aspects that many have undervalued, and its influence is ample and broad. Without a certain amount of creativity most, if not all, activities would not be able to reach its maximum potential, and that includes science and technology!

The result of critical thinking is that people will learn to think critically. They will be able to think independently, see a problem from many angles and see through lies and manipulation. They will also be more outspoken, telling others what they believe to be a wrong approach or idea; in other words, they can make up their own minds and have an opinion.

Now opinions are great. They give us our individuality, and as we know, in a free country like ours, everyone has a right to their own opinion, no matter how wrong we may deem them to be. All our own personal experiences form into clusters of schemata and become our lenses through which we see and interpret the world.

Here is where the problem lies. When we have reached midlife, we walk around with myriads of preconceived notions and judgments. We may have an opinion on a variety of objects, some of them more informed than others, and, in some, we may be more confident than in others.

And suddenly they tell us we should not be so judgmental! After years of encouragement of having a mind of our own! This is a very difficult thing to do. We cannot just erase years of conditioning and personal experience.

A possible solution could be thus: Have an open attitude. I have previously blogged about the importance of humility. We need it here. There is no way we can ever exactly know what others are feeling or going through. All we have are only approximations. We know what it feels like to go through a difficult break-up from what may have happened to us in the past. But we will never know exactly how this person, a different individual, may feel about his loved one, a different person with different sets of relationship variables.

As a result, I try my best to be as humble as possible. There are so many experiences I have never had and some I will never know about. I get glimpses of a similar experience, but I can never know for sure. When people deal with heartache, I can only know what it has felt for myself to be in a similar situation, that's all.

However, when women go through pregnancy and give birth, I cannot possibly know as a man what it feels like and am left with conjectures only. The problem is we do not really know, in fact, we will not fully understand or ever get the complete picture of many types of experiences in our lifetime. So all we are left with are our own little biased opinions that we need to shed from time to time to become open-minded.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Faith, Imagination and why all Religions are equally right – and wrong

Ancient Roman gods in discussion
In our logical dualistic minds, we constantly separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, and right from wrong and are bound to exclude one from the other. In other words, A is A and cannot be not-A at the same time. You cannot have, from a logical point of view, two contradictory statements that are equally right.

This belief, which is the backbone of science and technology, may stumble upon some difficulties in other, rather shady areas. One such would be the field of ethics. Sometimes it is not so easy to know which path to take, and both actions could be the “right” thing to do. In those cases, we may use our utilitarian guidelines, namely to find the choice that is the best option for the largest group of people.

In other areas, such as our personal lives, we tend to make decisions based on either what “feels” right, or we bring out our list of pros and cons. But what about religious issues? Are the answers clear-cut? Can we say that one religion is more correct than others? Does logic apply to those realms as well? Is there an afterlife – or is there none? Do we accept "yes-and-no" and "yes, but ..." answers?

The problem is that our mind seems incapable or unwilling of accepting and embracing two contradictory statements. Either you are lying or you are telling the truth, now which one is it?

But then again “truth” can be a relative and subjective matter. What is true to me, to my experience of the world, may directly oppose your version. If I am depressed and you are happy, our views of the same event are diametrically opposed. And when it comes to feelings, can we not feel both sad and happy at the same time? We often cry in both situations, so sometimes it is hard to distinguish one from the other.

There is a bizarre conclusion I would like to propose, one that may exasperate many logically and scientifically trained and inclined minds: What if all religions are equally right and wrong?

Imagine the following scenario. Romans used to worship Roman gods. For them, those gods, Jupiter and Apollo were “real”; they existed. We might say they exist in the same way fictitious entities like “Harry Potter” or “James Bond” exist. Do they really exist? No. Well, yes. Kinda. They exist in people's minds but not physically, right?

What if there is another plane of existence? Somewhere where time and space have not been born yet, in a world of twilight zone meets pre-Big Bang. What if in this world, what you believe is not only true for you personally but becomes actually true through the simple act of faith and imagination.

What if God both exists and does not exist simply based on what we think, regardless of actual physical reality? So atheists will find no God, while theists would claim that they were also right after all. To each his or her own.

This must have been the confusion that the protagonist in Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris faced. At that space station, one's imagination became reality. As a result, he met the physical embodiment of his now-dead wife. A hallucination? Perhaps, but she (it?) was there and felt “real” to the touch. Seeing was believing, no? If what we can see is not real and what we cannot see is not real either, what else is there?

My proposition is that the Romans were right in their unwavering belief, so is a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, and a Hindu. The world is perhaps less objective than we think. Faith can move more than mountains. Imagination is more important than knowledge. We are the creators, each one of us, not only of our own lives but perhaps of the cosmos itself.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On Being a Father: Two Years Later

Toddler son staring at camera
Although the first year of fatherhood was very interesting and rewarding, the second year has been much more beautiful. The difference is that nowadays my son is not only acknowledging my presence, but is actively looking for me and enjoys being around me. We have already our own unique and bonding activities, such as “shaving” and “doing the laundry,” which happen, at his own insistence, at the exclusion of his mother.

I am told that sons begin to identify more with their father at this point and turn him into their personal hero. I remember talking to some of the kids I was teaching, and they often mention that they look up to their father. This paternal admiration fills me with a cocktail of emotions, ranging from pride, love, satisfaction, and dread.

Yes, dread because there is often, if not always, in the back of my mind the fear of not delivering, of not living up to the standards of my son. And I know that once the teenage period kicks in, I will have to be at my best and strongest to deal with some of those burning accusations of his acute and imaginative mind!

At the same time, it fills me with anger to see how so many fathers out there let down their own children. Whether it is on purpose or as an unwanted consequence, they hurt their kids and leave long-lasting deep scars in the psyche of these fragile beings. Fatherhood, more than anything, comes with great responsibility, and one needs to be aware of it, whether one likes it or not.

I am also aware personally that the fate and plight of children affects me much more now than in the past. I have to admit that certain commercials involving desolate children or movies depicting a father-son relationship affect me more than ever. It is my sentimental spot, but it is mostly because having a child myself has opened a new gate, suddenly and automatically, a new way of seeing and understanding the world.

Nothing to me is more rewarding at the end of a day of work than arriving at my apartment, opening the door and hear my son screaming “papa” and running towards the door to greet me. I see his glowing face and for a moment all tired feelings have lifted from me and all my efforts for his well-being are worth that single moment in time.