Some people consider changing their minds as a sign of weakness. It provokes the fear of being criticized, looking stupid, and needing to apologize or ask forgiveness.
Yet every therapist and non-therapist needs modification of himself and his outlook. We must try to learn what we don’t know of the human world and reform our previous beliefs. Bullet-proof ideas, unchangeable in every detail, lead to unchanging actions. As the old saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.“*
More than a few times during my career, I realized my patient and I were stuck. My part included a failed treatment plan and a misunderstanding of my client’s essential qualities, how he thought or felt, and the universe of his suffering.
I established a way of approaching this situation. Of course, researching and discussing the dilemma with experienced and wise clinicians was the first step.
If that failed, however, the fix required more.
I tried for a new conceptualization of my patient.
Imagine a blackboard full of every word or picture available to describe you. Now visualize your counselor. He is responsible for all you see before you, everything he chalked on the white-on-black wall.
He included the way you dress, move, and express yourself. Your history is recorded in the way he heard it. Your own self-reflections and self-knowledge are present, too, as you described them in the office.
The hard surface before you hides the contribution of an invisible sense, as well. The words and pictures sprang from the lens of the healer.
The counselor’s professional and personal life colored his attempt to recognize you for who you are. Add any psychological test results or elements from your medical history. The representation in front of you, no matter how close to capturing the whole of you, is imperfect and incomplete.
I have been this imaginary clinical psychologist. Looking at the blackboard, I thought about the product of my work and erased everything so I might begin the therapeutic project again.
This approach didn’t help everyone, but the piece I missed revealed itself in many cases where I tried to reimagine what I’d overlooked.
Abraham Lincoln said it better during the Civil War when he applied similar thoughts to the job of saving the broken union of individual states:
The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
This way of approaching the world extends elsewhere on a much-reduced scale.
Take reading. Assume you are poring over the pages casually. Instead, engage in a conversation in your head with the book’s author.
Most of us reflexively respond to the characters or ideas we like and the ones we don’t. This manner of proceeding demands little thought. We judge the people, their behavior, and views from the perspective of beliefs we held before we began.
Here is an alternative, the one that grew from my professional frustrations. Begin by wiping your mind free of ingrained opinions and trying to figure out what the author wishes to express. No, you needn’t read his biography to discover this. Understand his message through his words without a leap to judgment.
When done regularly, the practice becomes automatic. Moreover, you will become less prone to immediate acceptance or rejection emerging from the deep freeze of your prior convictions. Perhaps reading will come to enlighten you through a growing capacity to read “closely,” with active searching and questioning as you dig into the material.
Little of this is easy, nor is it the work of a few days. None of us can make himself a whitewashed blank slate or scrape the blackboard of our every thought and feeling. Yet, to my way of thinking, we must try to be open, not constrained by comforting ourselves with unwarranted certainty.
We travel a road to stagnation when we insist our rightness is godlike and beyond reconsideration. To the extent we accept assertions based on questionable evidence handed down from a single person or group of like-minded people, we walk into invisible imprisonment by the false gods of our choosing. The more we convince ourselves of our rationality, closing our minds along the way, the farther we throw off our intellectual apparatus.
Doing so may make us feel wise or justify our anger but at the price of misunderstanding the world as it is.
As Ludwig Wittgenstein said in the preface to his Philosophical Investigations:
I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.
A few of the most delightful and provocative books I’ve encountered so fascinate me, I return to rereadings. The new thoughts they spur sometimes modify my conceptions over time. This approach continues to transform me. I am humbled by recognizing I must change my ideas, redefine the unstable world, and modify what is in my control. That includes changing myself while recognizing what is unchangeable about me.
I know there will never be enough time to learn all that is worth remembering, do all that is worth doing, and repair more than a few bits of our planetary life together.
Still, I must try to hold my arms wide and embrace as much of the world as I can — with love.
All of the photographs come from History Daily. The first University of Pennsylvania Football Player Frank Yablonski Wearing a New Style Helmet in 1932. Next is an image of Bedouin Tents in Morocco. The card game following includes Billy the Kid (the Young Man in the Top Hat) with His Accomplices in 1877. Finally, Broadway and 53rd Street in New York City in 1928.