The most beautiful skill I’ve been working on developing lately, and of which I’ve come to find the world is in desperate need, is that of philosophical fluidity.
Not to be confused with being convictionless or foundationless, philosophical fluidity means setting aside one’s biases, judgments, and agenda in order to more sincerely understand and connect with another person, especially one who differs in religious or political ideals. It’s the result of a healthy mixture of open-mindedness, genuine curiosity, and—most importantly—human empathy. It is taking a bold step outside one’s theological comfort zone as opposed to remaining rigid within a single way of thinking.
Philosophical fluidity is what allows me talk to my atheist friend on the phone one night about how God just doesn’t make sense and that it’s probably better for a lot of people to just leave religion behind, but go the next morning with my mom to an LDS Relief Society meeting and genuinely enjoy the heartwarming stories of faith and sisterhood, and then, later that evening, be spiritually uplifted as I attend an informal, non-denominational Christian sacrament gathering with my fellow heretics. While it was, at first, inconceivable for me to willingly participate in these vastly different interactions all in one lifetime (let alone in one weekend), I have since learned how beneficial and eye-opening it is to temporarily adopt the mindset of those around me for the sake of human connection.
Although it’s become more and more difficult to make doctrinal claims with the certainty I possessed three years ago, I’ve found that my habit of looking down upon people is crumbling, my capacity for appreciation has grown, and my list of enemies (or, rather, people I fear) has shrunk significantly.
Getting to this point took months and months of deep introspection and intense brain-stretching. Philosophical fluidity is very freeing, as it allows me to connect with people I never would have thought I could associate with in an open, unguarded, and beautifully vulnerable manner. It’s something I’m still working on, and it’s still a struggle, but the effects are absolutely worth it. My goal one day is to be able to comfortably have a deep conversation with someone of any culture, background, or theology, and walk away with my eyes more open, but my mind at peace despite our differences.
Philosophical fluidity doesn’t mean adopting every opinion one comes across, nor is it simply listening to the other side of the argument. It is the willingness and ability to look through a different lens of perspective and being content with it changing the way one thinks. It is accepting the possibility that the discovery of new information will affect one’s core values, and (this is the scary part) allowing one’s moral compass to adjust as needed by the acquisition of new knowledge and understanding.
In the art of empathy and human connection, the ability to step boldly out of one’s philosophical and theological comfort zone is paramount. It’s also risky business because doing so can change everything. While significant effort and discomfort is often involved (at least in my experience), there are beautiful benefits of stepping out of that comfort zone that will serve us as individuals and our communities as a whole. Here are three of them:
Benefit #1: You Develop Resilience in Dealing with Doubt
Perhaps the most obvious turn-off for taking the time and effort to bother with stepping out of one’s theological comfort zone is the discomfort of doubt. No one likes the feeling that they might possibly be wrong about something, and putting oneself in the position where that uneasy feeling is experienced is generally not a desirable course of action. In the face of doubt, it is important that we act on courage. Act despite that discomfort and face that fear of the unknown by seeking wisdom. Ask the deep, difficult questions, even if the answer might be something that’s hard to hear, or worse, it turns out that there isn’t really a clear-cut answer after all.
In my previous article, I elaborated on the importance of doubt in our lives, and how it really isn’t the scary poison we tend to think of it as.
Stepping outside the bounds of your ideological comfort zone is an important part of philosophical fluidity because it will give you plenty of practice with coping effectively with doubt. Dealing with doubt, as opposed to evading interactions during which you will encounter it, is precisely how faith is developed.
Benefit #2: You Stop Getting Offended
When a person or group of people does something we disagree with, we have the tendency to disregard them completely. If we want to practice empathy, however, we can’t write off everything else they say as false or immoral.
Humans are creatures of amazing complexity. No matter where you look, you’re not going to find someone who you can consider an infallible source of truth. While it’s cognitively easier to sort people into black and white boxes—liars and truth-tellers, protagonists and antagonists, good guys and bad guys—we need to accept that there’s beauty and truth in everyone.
When someone behaves in a way or makes a statement that offends us, it’s our natural response to discredit every other thing they say and do. While it may be natural, this is a very illogical attitude. True statements or beneficial principles are not tainted (they don’t become any less true or beneficial) because a false statement or harmful principle happens to come from the same source. If someone openly supports a corrupt politician and is also an advocate for healthy diet and exercise, their misguided support of that politician doesn’t make their stance on healthy lifestyles any less beneficial.
If someone thinks the God I worship is purely a figment of my imagination, this does not mean I need to disagree with them on all aspects of their philosophy. If they make an insensitive remark about my belief in a God, I can get distracted by their offensive remark and forever consider them a jerk who I’ll never agree with in a million years, or I can keep talking to them and discover that they have a fascinating humanist philosophy dedicated to creating a more peaceful and service-oriented society. I can then adopt the principles of their ideology which resonate with me, even though the same source from which I learned those principles happens to disagree with me on a very fundamental belief.
In developing philosophical fluidity, you’re going to be listening to a lot of conflicting viewpoints and, if some of those viewpoints include values you hold dear, you’re probably going to get offended. The good news is: when you’re continually stepping out of your comfort zone and allowing yourself to be exposed to offensive statements, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get better at not allowing those ideas distract you from the good ideas.
Understanding the reasons for a person’s potentially offensive behavior makes it much harder to hate or be offended by them.
Benefit #3: You Make a Difference in Creating an Empathetic Society
Exercising and developing philosophical fluidity does something amazing to how we see people: our innate social concept of “Us vs Them” dissolves. When “Us” understands, connects, and empathizes with “Them,” you can’t have the conflict required for bullying, persecution, or violence.
If a teenager cuts you off backing out in the Walmart parking lot, it’s easy to sort him into your collection of personal antagonists. “Stupid kids these days! So selfish and inconsiderate. You can tell him a million times to watch where he’s going and look out for other cars, but it won’t work because he just doesn’t care. That’s his problem. He doesn’t care about other people. He just wants to hurry home to his parents’ basement and play video games for ten hours…”
This is the cognitively easy option: to respond in anger and categorize him on “their” side of the fence.
But what would happen if you somehow later found out that this was his first time driving on his own, that his mind was nervous and racing because his driving instructor was an incompetent teacher, his name was Hunter, he was on his way to pick up his little brother, Jason, from kindergarten, that he plays the tenor saxophone, and he has two hamsters? In other words, what happens when we take “stupid, inconsiderate teenager” and look at him as “Hunter, my fellow human trying to live his life the best he knows how?” You don’t need to retract your observation that he made a dangerous maneuver and should probably improve his driving skills, but he’s suddenly a lot harder to hate now that you see him as a complex human with memories and talents and personality, yes?
Now let’s apply that to a scenario of philosophical differences.
Having a relatively small circle of friends growing up in very Mormon Utah in very Christian America, I didn’t personally know any atheists, nor did I take any interest in atheism whatsoever. Atheists and agnostics were definitely a “them” group, and I saw almost no point in attempting to understand their line of thinking. Like all humans prefer to do, I continued to surround myself with like-minded individuals.
It wasn’t really until several of my friends, all of whom I considered strong believers during their time of religious activity, revealed to me that they weren’t sure they really believed in God anymore. But here’s the problem: Atheists, to me, were a “them” group. These friends, of course, were included in my “us” group. What happens when members of “us” become members of “them?”
The thing about the “them” groups we create in our minds is that we’re innately tuned to think they’re all the same, that they all possess the negative qualities all antagonists possess: pride, laziness, selfishness, immorality, et cetera, because we dehumanize them into scapegoats for easy blaming. It’s an easy and comfortable cognitive shortcut.
Just like humanizing new-driver Hunter made it harder to stick him in the “them” group of “stupid, inconsiderate teenagers,” I couldn’t bear to see my friends as “them” because I knew too much about my friends to dismiss them as all the negative traits I mindlessly applied to all atheists and the rest of “them.” Among other aspects of their lives and personalities, I knew they were hardworking, thoughtful, open to knowledge from a higher source, and had very advanced moral characters. Particularly after listening to their stories and placing myself in their (what I deemed to be) frightening perspective of the world—learning why they believed the way they did—there was no way I could dismiss my newly-atheist friends into the morally-degenerate category of “them.” This not only aided me in viewing my friends in better light; I could better understand atheists from all over the world in addition to my friends. My “us” circle grew and my “them” crowd of enemies shrank.
While my own theological beliefs were questioned and shaken through this exercise in empathy (which was scary), it also helped me to discover and strengthen my core values. I could have stuck with the easy, comfortable way of thinking by automatically sorting my friends into the “them” crowd and continuing to associate only with those who reflected my own worldviews, but by following the path of empathy, I gained far more than I sacrificed.
Seeing why people believe the way they do, listening to their points and reasoning (even if they disagree with us), diminishes “them-ness.” Yes, we will still disagree on many things, but the moment we are able set aside our fiery emotional reactions and tendencies to blame is the moment we can take objective action in finding real solutions.
I don’t believe world peace can come from the top down—that is, by a powerful worldwide program, set of policies, or some perfect form of government. Our hope in peaceful society lies in the individual. We all have the responsibility to make the changes within ourselves to affect the people around us, which will, in turn, influence entire communities, cultures, and nations. If we all were to take a stand in refusing to see our fellow human beings as enemies—choosing the harder, higher path of sincere understanding—large populations would no longer be swayed by passionate and hate-inspiring propaganda which divides people into “us” and “them.” Empathy is absolutely key in creating the change our society desperately needs, and this sort of empathy requires the mental rigor of not only listening, but allowing our worldviews to change according to the new understanding which we acquire.