The Life Force of an Open but Critical Mind

I feel kind of silly trying to teach you about the value of an open mind when it should be the other way around.

Young people are curious and eager to learn. They walk around like giant question marks. It is only when we start growing up that we turn from question marks to periods. We shut our minds… snap!... like oysters.

Rebel musician and bandleader Frank Zappa said that a mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it’s not open.

So why do we allow our minds to gradually close?

Because we become lazy, arrogant, and scared.

The lazy part is easy to understand and the easiest to correct. All you need are the life forces of Curiosity and Grit.

Arrogance, or hubris, is what happens to us when consumed by the Dragon of Toxic Pride. We start to think we know it all and don’t need to learn anything new. 

If you ask anyone who the wisest people in the world have been, they’ll probably include Greek philosopher Socrates and Albert Einstein. 

Socrates was reported to have said that the only thing he knew was that he didn’t know anything. Einstein said that he had no special talent… he was only passionately curious. 

These guys never stopped exposing their great minds to new ideas. Neither should you. Remember... an organism that fails to learn and adapt to a changing environment will perish. Oysters that remain shut, can’t eat. 

But what about fear? How does fear close our minds?

In the life force of Social Intelligence I explained how a person’s identity is shaped, in part, by the common story shared by the community in which he is raised. The more time passes, the more that person identifies himself through that story and the more deeply that person relies on that story to tell him who he is and where he belongs.

For example: if you had been born and raised in a small village in the 14th Century, your entire world was contained within that environment. Your family would’ve probably owned a tiny farm which you and your siblings would one day inherit. If your father was the town’s blacksmith, he would one day train you to replace him. Chances are you would never get a formal education. 

The village was ruled by a local lord to whom the villagers owed their allegiance in exchange for protection. There was no way you would one day rise to a position of wealth and power. No one was telling kids they could be anything they wanted to be. That would’ve been silly. So in that sense, envy was less painful because of your inescapable circumstances. You were born a peasant and would die a peasant, or serf, or blacksmith. Life was also short. If lucky, you would live until the age of 40. 

Your village probably contained no more than 200 people. Everyone knew each other. You knew who you could trust and who was untrustworthy. 

People didn’t travel much… there was no media, not even books. People got their news either through town gossip, the occasional traveler, and from the village priest at church. The story of your village was your story. There was no other story. 

Life was hard, but simple. The bad things that happened to your village – plagues, disease, droughts, crop failure, or famine – were easily explained by religion – it was the will of God. During that time, people believed the earth was flat and that humans were at the center of the Universe. We were the chosen species. It was a comforting, simple story which made us feel special, safe, and protected.

Then came the printing press (the Internet of the 1400s) which began to make information more available to people, followed by the Scientific Revolution that brought the world a different story, challenging sacred beliefs and making many people feel unsafe. The rug was pulled from under their feet, so to speak, and there no longer was solid ground on which to stand. As expected, many oysters began to snap! shut.

Remember Galileo? The scientist who proved the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around as many believed? His discovery meant that the Earth, and, therefore, humans, were not at the center of the Universe which also meant we were not special after all. This made many people afraid, and when we panic, our brain – just like a zebra under attack by a lion - goes into either, flight, or fight mode.

Flight means shutting your mind from any news that contradicts your story in order to feel safe.

Fight means destroying the source of the unwelcome news.

In Galileo’s case, the church leaders at the time chose both. They refused to believe his story and locked him up in jail to force him to say his discovery was not true.

You may have heard the phrase “Don’t kill the messenger.

It probably originated from what happened right before the Battle of Tigranocerta, more than 2000 years ago, between the forces of the Roman Republic, led by Lucullus, and the army of the Kingdom of Armenia, led by King Tigranes the Great. As Lucullus’ forces advanced towards Armenia, a messenger arrived at King Tigranes’ camp to warn him about the oncoming attack. The King refused to believe him and was so scared by the information that he had the messenger’s head cut off.

Guess who lost?

The human brain’s most important job is not to think, feel, or even see, but to keep our bodies alive and well so that we may survive and thrive (and eventually reproduce). 

Our mind has filters to deal with all the information coming at us from the outside world, breaking things down and making them simpler for us to consume and understand. But these filters are not entirely rational. They don’t separate things neatly between right and wrong, true or false, but by how closely the information matches and supports our personal story, our sense of self, our beliefs, and the beliefs shared by our village or tribe. 

Our brains work on the fly, and if overloaded with information, we seek simple answers to complicated questions.

The world you live in today is far more complex and complicated than the one a boy had to navigate in the 14th Century. Way more!

Information is coming at you from everywhere, overloading a brain that has not evolved quickly enough to filter it all. It’s still operating under its basic fight or flight settings. What’s making things more challenging is that the Internet and social media now allow anyone to post anything, whether true or false, and it’s very difficult to know which is which and very hard to know who you can trust.

The Locusts of the world know this well. They know it’s becoming much harder for young people to find their place in the world. Often using cute memes and jokes to conceal their poison, they’ll try to manipulate your confusion and your fears, sometimes even causing you to be afraid for no good reason, and once they have you under their spell, they will offer you a simple solution to make you feel safe. “Join our tribe, and we will protect you!” “Believe our story, and you’ll be saved. You’ll get the power and respect you deserve!” 

Sounds comforting, but it’s a Venus Flytrap, the carnivorous plant - also known as ‘The Red Dragon’ - that lures its prey with sweet nectar. Once a tiny insect lands on its leaves, it trips the trigger hairs on the outside of the traps. In less than a second, the leaves shut, and the Red Dragon begins to devour its prey.

To avoid being devoured by red dragons, you must neither close your mind entirely nor believe something because it makes you feel safe or offers you a place to belong. The answer is to become a smart oyster.

Oysters are the ocean’s masters of filtration. They are detritivores, feeding off fragments of bodies of dead organisms and fecal material (poop), which they filter in and over their gills.

Think of social media as a vast ocean of information that contains both nutritious knowledge as well as a lot of poop. The challenge is to feed your brain rightly by creating an efficient filtration system.

Open too wide and for too long, and your brain will go on overload and quickly make you look for simple answers or cling more tightly to what you believe. Shut it down completely and you won’t survive.

Open it up only to stories which make you feel safe, or agree with what you think, and you won’t grow as a human being. Your job is not to be right, but to learn. You must have the courage to actively seek out stories and opinions that completely disagree with yours. 

So, neither kill the messenger, nor believe everything he says. There is a big difference between being skeptical and being close-minded. 

Be open, but prudently open, and always carry the Shield of  Skepticism and Critical Thought.

If you’re smart, you’ll make pearls, like oysters do.

The Life Force of an Open but Critical Mind is the way of the Wizard whose job is to filter the information entering the kingdom, reflecting on it, and then delivering the pearls of wisdom to the King after flushing out all the poop.

Wise wizards, like Socrates and Einstein, are neither lazy, arrogant know-it-alls, nor are they afraid to change their opinion when confronted with a higher truth. They're also smart enough to know how to uncover and flush-out Red Dragon poop. 

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Next Life Force: Clear-Eyed Optimism 

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