I read a lot.
I read every day in almost every spare minute throughout the day. Rarely do I read novels. If I am going to spend time on fiction, it has to be of historical or topical significance, it has to challenge or move me, and it can’t be in the least bit predictable. Basically, I want to read what people smarter than me have written.
I want to be uncomfortable. I want to have to look up a word now and then. I want to reread a paragraph two or three times because the concept it boiled down is paradigm-shifting in its significance.
In all that reading, I stumble across a great many ideas or quotes that are beautiful or heart-wrenching or ring of such Truth I experience goosebumps. (Truthbumps, as I call them). Some make me want to sit down and write. Some make me weep. Some make me leave the words and go out into the woods.
Yes, it is good to be uncomfortable, especially now in these (__blank__) times. (Fill in the blank with your adjective of choice; there are no wrong answers, and the word you choose today may not fit for you tomorrow.) I try my best not to resist feeling uncomfortable because while part of me certainly wants to live in simple oblivion focused on my own little piece of the happiness pie, a bigger part knows that the greatest growth and change can happen as the result of discomfort. My path seems to lead ever in that direction.
Anywho, I came across a quote that, like many before it, stayed with me and made me want to dive deeper. Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis once said “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” Kazantzakis lived from 1883-1957 and is best known for the movie adaptions of his novels “Zorba The Greek” and “The last Temptation of Christ.” He was nominated by his peers for the Nobel Prize in Literature nine times but was never chosen. His tombstone reads “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free”, which had me mulling even longer than his quote.
I’m not reading his novels and I only researched who he was and what his life was about when I stumbled across the quote. At first it rang so true to me: we can’t change our reality; we can only change ourselves. It would seem to be the basic platitude of the $11 billion/year self-help industry.
But what if we can change our reality? What if we can make a difference in the world? What if opening our eyes changed us enough that it made life better for ourselves, for the people around us and for people we don’t even know? Aren’t we all the butterfly whose delicate wings make unseen waves around the world?
I believe as much.
I believe it all matters. What we say, what we do, what we believe, how we believe.
I think that if we see ourselves and our systems of belief as the truth with no room for any other truth, we are judging ours and us as superior, and therefore we are making everyone else and their beliefs wrong and as a result, inferior. The longer we hold to this thinking – for a lifetime or generations or even thousands of years in some structures – the more likely we are to treat those we see as “wrong” poorly or as sub-humans. And ultimately, we then start to support and pursue systems that strip those who are not like us of their rights. Most of us do this without even being aware of what we’re doing, how it impacts others and ultimately how it comes back to make our own world worse than it was before.
So, I have to flip this on myself, of course. I do believe there is a moral high-ground when it comes to race, religion, and other hot-topics that are so politicized of late. I believe some people’s beliefs are morally superior to the likes of … say… what Roseanne Barr or the White Nationalists or even our current President believes.
And I don’t think this sort of right/wrong believing is inherently bad unless what results subtly or blatantly dehumanizes the other side. When we start dehumanizing the racists, the bigots, the misogynists, even the gang members, prostitutes and murderers than we are no better than what we judge them to be. And we’ve certainly seen this from both sides of the polarized spectrum now and over the years.
So, how do we change the eyes we use to see reality? How do keep that as the motive instead of the desire to change what we see as wrong our world? How do we reconcile the slow and simple forward progress of going inward when there is so much about our external world that we believe needs to change? How do we become okay with our own discomfort so that our subtle wing flaps help instead of hinder someone we may not know? And how do we even start to care if there are enough stresses in our own little lives that we feel we just can’t add anything more?
I don’t have the answers, but I do know that reading is the start. Reading as much as we can, from all perspectives, especially those that challenge us is what’s important. Even much-criticized Kim Kardashian has apparently read beyond her current understanding about prison reform, as we may deduce from her Oval Office meeting last week.
In Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book”, he explains that if you only read what you already believe and comprehend, you’re reading only to increase your stores of information. Reading for understanding, on the other hand, is when you’re reading above your current level and beyond your current comfort zone. It’s not always fun, like reading for entertainment is. And it’s not always easy, like reading for information validation tends to be. Approaching reading as learning is what’s important, especially learning by discovering instead of learning through instruction. Discovery learning is about more than simply jogging or expanding your memory. It’s about learning why things are the way they are, how it’s all connected, how it impacts other facts, other people, and the rest of the world.
With that, here are the books I hold in my hands and my earbuds at the moment: “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi. And, “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan.
Both of these books will require a very open-mind for many readers, but I’d like to issue a challenge to our small Northwoods community. What if we all read what challenged us? What if it opened our minds to new ways of thinking? What if we discovered new ways of being as a result? What if these (___fill-in-the-blank___) times started improving for EVERYONE?
Would that be so bad?
(Published in June 5th issue of the Warroad Pioneer)