It's easy to get angry or annoyed with people who don't share our points of view.
It's even easier to get angry or annoyed when those same people insist on maintaining their points of view in spite of our best efforts to critique their opinions and change their minds.
Throughout the written record of human history, there has never been a shortage of frustrated thinkers who bemoaned the existence of irrational people. There has never been a shortage of proselytizers who felt deeply troubled by what seemed to be a unique epidemic of close-mindedness in their era. There has never been a shortage of aspiring revolutionaries who believed that the fate of the planet was headed for disaster because of all the so-called morons that refused to entertain new ideas.
Our generation is no different in this regard.
We are a generation that longs to see change and progress, but like those who've come before us, we seem to face formidable resistance from those who seem wedded to the rules of conventional thinking.
No one cares about the truth anymore.
No one cares about real progress anymore.
No one cares about basing their beliefs on facts and evidence anymore.
No one cares about individual rights anymore.
No one cares about the good of society as a whole anymore.
These are the kinds of stories we begin to tell ourselves after multiple failed attempts at getting people to open their minds to whatever it is we think they ought to believe. Such stories, however, although very tempting, are ultimately self-stultifying because they blind us to the most important truth about creating meaningful dialogue:
You can never hope to change the world unless you adopt a charitable view of other people's ability and willingness to think intelligently.
The moment you make up your mind that people are incorrigibly stupid, your days of being an effective agent of social change are numbered. What does it even mean to invest in the future of our planet if that investment doesn't involve the people who inhabit the planet? And what does it even mean to invest in people if we don't take them seriously as entities that are capable of opening their hearts and minds to new vistas of possibility?
Changing the world requires a delicate balance between honesty and hope. On one end, we need to be honest about the ways in which our society is broken. On the other end, we need to be hopeful about our ability to create incentive structures that redirect human activities towards a constructive aim. Hope without honesty is delusional, but honesty without hope is paralyzing.
So how do we proceed? Do we sit back on our couches and try to change the world through positive affirmations? Should we all just purchase a copy of The Secret, collectively visualize a better world, and hope that the planet heals itself through the power of mental magic?
The answer to all the above is a resounding “no.” The way forward is not delusional optimism, but mindful constructivism.
When many people hear the term "mindfulness," they think of things like Buddhism, meditation, being peaceful, taking walks, chewing your food slowly, etc. But mindfulness is more of a general orientation than a specific activity. To be mindful is to adopt a sense of life that says "In all things, I am student first and a teacher second." It is to maintain what Zen philosophers call "Beginner's mind." It is to live with a recognition that creativity and problem-solving becomes infinitely more likely when we listen before we talk, when we look carefully before we judge, when we aim to be present with others before preaching at them.
There is a story in the Bible of a group of people who were building a tower to heaven. It was called the Tower of Babel. One day God comes strolling along and sees their progress. "These people can do anything they set their minds to," God says. So in order to stop them from building this tower to heaven, he divides their languages and makes it impossible for them to communicate with each other. They immediately went from being all-powerful to incompetent in the twinkling of an eye.
Our world is filled with many problems that demand our attention and collaboration. But it won't matter how good our ideas are if we can't find a way to talk with each other in a manner that generates "more light than heat."
If you want make a positive impact on the world, I'd like to challenge you to be more mindful. Be mindful of the tone in which you express your ideas. Be mindful of your timing when you ask others to give attention to your ideas. Be mindful of the context within which you are sharing your ideas. Be mindful of the people you're talking to. Be mindful of their hopes, dreams, fears, and self-doubts. Be mindful of their needs and frailties. Be mindful of their unique experiences. Be mindful of not just your capacity to teach them, but also their capacity to teach you. Be mindful of the fact that change takes time and that revolutions don't happen overnight. And above all, be mindful of the fact that you will always have infinitely more to learn than you will ever have to teach.
Having great ideas is awesome. Having phenomenal talent is awesome. Having strong work ethic is awesome. Having good character is awesome. Being mindful will keep all that awesomeness from going to waste.
This article was written by TK Coleman, the Education Director for Praxis and interviewee on the HumanCurrent Podcast. Stay tuned for our upcoming episode with TK, where we discuss system theories, racism & human relationships. And, check out more of TK's writing at his website, the Praxis blog, and Medium.