I like to think of myself as open-minded. We all like to think of ourselves as open-minded (If you have ever heard someone describe himself or herself as a close-minded individual…I’d be curious to meet him or her. But then again, maybe not…). We all have friends or family who identify as homosexual. Perhaps our neighbor identifies as transgender. Maybe we had black or other minority students in our college classes. Or maybe we went to a liberal arts college. We ride our bicycle exclusively (even when it’s dark and rainy and we are carrying a week’s worth of groceries). Or maybe we exclusively take the bus (after all, it builds character). We have been to strip clubs and have giggled in sex-shops (after a healthy debate, of course) and we even have a friend who was an “exotic dancer”. We may have done more drugs than our peers and feel that, because we have had these experiences, our minds are more opened (or we have done no drugs and raise ourselves above those who have—after all, drugs can contribute to brain damage). We meditate every morning before breakfast. We drink only fair-trade coffee (often out of mason jars). We eat local food. We are vegetarian, or better yet, are vegan or raw-foodists. And our bank is our local credit union.
Yes, we believe (consciously or not) that being open-minded is equivalent to the lifestyle choices we make. However, being liberal does not equate being open-minded.
Having grown up in Sedona, Arizona, and having spent the majority of my adulthood in the progressive community of Portland, OR, I have spent my life around people who believe themselves to be open-minded. However, despite having lived in these communities and despite what we like to believe about ourselves, I am confronted with close-minded “open-minded” individuals on almost a daily basis.
I argue that this closed-minded “open-mindedness” is severely limiting and can prevent us from truly connecting with others.
Some of the best lessons I have learned have come from “unlikely situations”, situations so unlikely that I have had to grapple with my own boundaries of open-mindedness. One such lesson came from a brilliantly loving Maori woman who was a single mother that was several months pregnant with her second child. As we worked together in the south island of New Zealand, we talked about the struggles of motherhood, the profoundness of love, and the absolute beauty of bringing new life into our world. Talking with the woman, my then-somewhat troubled relationship with my own mother began to unfold and I became overwhelmed with an appreciation for the sacrifices that my own mother had made for my sister and me. For the first time in my nineteen-years, my heart opened to the beauty of motherhood. This moment impacted my life and I remember it with warmth and fondness. I felt so much respect for this woman who had overcome so much (and taught me about motherhood).
Then we took our lunch break.
As I opened up my lunch of homemade bread (baked on top of a wood stove in a Dutch oven), local cheese, and local smoked venison salami, this amazing woman who had taught me so much went over to the corner of the dining area and lit up a cigarette. And then another one. And perhaps another one. At six and a half months pregnant.
She saw me looking over at her, nodded her head at me, and genuinely beamed in my direction.
I looked down, averting her gaze. And, for the remaining few weeks that I worked at the farm, I never made eye contact with her again.
Because of those cigarettes (which at 19 I occasionally smoked myself) and her pregnant condition, I had no idea where to place my experience with her. I was too close-minded to appreciate the value of our connection and to separate her wisdom from her addiction (or lifestyle choice, depending on your view of cigarette smoking).
After deconstructing the uncomfortable feelings tangled with my reaction to my interactions with this woman, I learned two valuable lessons. The first, involving motherhood, I have already discussed. The second, and perhaps more important lesson, was to realize humanity and be more open-minded about my teachers.
So, I want to pose some questions to us “progressive” folks. (Mind you, I am known to enjoy some healthy exaggeration, especially when it comes to life in Portland, OR…)
How do we view those who drink Folgers? Or those who drink Starbucks instead of Stumptown (or Stumptown over Heart)? How do we view those who drive their cars to work rather than spending their long commutes biking in the rain or taking multiple buses to reach their destination? Those that choose to drive a BMW over a Prius? Or those that shop at Safeway or at Whole Foods rather than the farmers market or exclusively at their local co-op? Those who still eat McDonald’s? And what about those who came from wealthy families and had their opportunities “handed” to them?
In fewer words: How do we view those who have made life choices that differ or even conflict with our own?
We all try to justify our lives and the decisions we have made to get us where we are or where we want to go, often failing to recognize that other paths and choices are completely valid. To us, our “open-minded” ways are more “enlightened” than those with differing views or with those who have made different choices. And, on many levels, I am just as guilty as my peers.
One of the things that my advocacy training has reinforced is that we are the experts in our own lives, and are not experts in the lives of others. I believe that this lesson is key to being open-minded. We must consider where others have been and where they are coming from. We must understand that there is more than one way to save the world. We also must learn that just because someone is different or has a less than savory (or too savory) background, which we find conflicting, we can still learn valuable lessons.
After all, it is conflict and difference that makes our world interesting.
Note: While this post illustrates a bit of my sense of humor concerning myself and the locals where I have spent a significant portion of my life, I feel strongly about its content and ask my readers, especially those who identify as liberal or progressive, to critically evaluate their own “open-mindedness,” including judgments which they may project inadvertently.