In a convenience store in Deer Trail, CO, I was behind a man at the checkout who had the F-word tattooed on the back of one arm and “OFF” on the back of the other. I assumed many of the same things you just did. Then I noticed he was with a child, who I assume was his granddaughter. They were getting some snacks and paying for gas, and he was letting her do the credit card thing. She was having a ball and he was being a marvelous granddad. I think I might have liked getting to know him.
I remember when our children were young, they had a toy that was a plastic ball that separated along its equator. Half was red, half was blue and the handles that pulled it apart were yellow, as were the various shaped pieces. The object was to put the pieces inside the ball by putting them through the hole shaped like the piece. Once they were all in, you could pull the ball apart and dump them all out to start over. You could also pull the ball apart and stuff all the pieces in if you were in a hurry to get things picked up.
We are each like that ball. The way we view people, situations, and information is through filters that have very specific shapes. The openings for information to come through are shaped by our life experiences. When someone says or does something that “fits” our openings, we accept it and identify with that person or situation. When something doesn’t fit, it is very hard for that information or that person to get “in.”
So, we often judge people in ways that devalue them simply because the way they look or sound or act doesn’t fit through our life experience shaped holes. We do this with information and situations too. Unfortunately, we miss important and relevant input and experiences because we cannot see them for what they are. We miss relationships and opportunities to expand our understanding because the shape is “wrong.”
We do not have to remain stuck in this limited world.
The ball toy my children played with had several very different shapes. We can increase the number of different “shapes” by being open to new experiences and new information. As we do, more information will “get through.” One of the most useful tools for this is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It starts with being willing to ask ourselves what it would be like to be the other person and being open to seeing the world through their eyes and experiences without forcing our own assumptions on that view.
As we age, we experience a natural loss of cognitive reserve, which is the ability to efficiently use existing neural networks to solve problems, retrieve information, and perform other cognitively demanding tasks despite brain insult. According to recent studies, cognitive reserve is the principal cognitive indicator of relative resilience to the effects of neurodegenerative diseases. Guess what helps retain cognitive reserve? Experiencing new things! That’s right. Being open to and having new experiences doesn’t just make you a better person, it also keeps your mind sharper, even as you age.
As I thought about the man in Deer Trail, I wondered what I might have learned if we had a chance to talk. What experiences could he have shared with me? Places he has been, things he has seen, how he sees the world? I can’t imagine that knowing him and listening to him could have hurt me. I can imagine how it could have enriched me. I realize that I could have added a new shape to my filter set, and then I would have been open to additional new information and new experiences.
One of the things I value about being part of a diverse community like Kimray is all the opportunities it affords me to see the world through so many different people’s eyes. If a community is based on the belief that everyone is intrinsically and equally valuable, then it is a safe place to be open and vulnerable. When we trust each other, it becomes much easier to let new shapes into our lives. A culture where people are safe to be open to new information and new experiences represents the shape of things to come, and it is the Kimray Way.