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Not to be Surprised

Changing the mind of a single person, whose views are antagonistic, presents a multidimensional puzzle, its own complex problem, one with no simple solution. You believe in the rightness of your idea. It’s common sense. Yet the other person you’re speaking to does not see things your way. This is baffling to you. You cannot understand why something so obvious is not immediately recognized and accepted.

The crystal sphere of thought is as concentrical as the geological structure of the globe. As our soils and rocks lie in strata, concentric strata, so do all men’s thinkings run laterally, never vertically.

Changing the mind of a group of individuals, whose views are antagonistic, takes on an even greater level of complexity. You’ve explained to them your idea. It’s based on logic and sound reasoning. Yet they reject or ignore your concept. Don’t they understand? What seems to be the problem? Surely it’s not the idea itself––the idea makes perfect sense. There must be something wrong.

In the absence of man, we turn to nature, which stands next. In the divine order, intellect is primary; nature, secondary; it is the memory of the mind. That which once existed in intellect as pure law, has now taken body as Nature. It existed already in the mind in solution; now, it has been precipitated, and the bright sediment is the world. We can never be quite strangers or inferiors in nature. It is flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone. But we no longer hold it by the hand; we have lost our miraculous power; our arm is no more as strong as the frost; nor our will equivalent to gravity and the elective attractions.

Why are deep-seated beliefs and behaviors so resistant to change? Well, they’re ingrown––taking hold during childhood, hardening over time into certainty. Also, they have a purpose: to make complexity comprehensible. They’re comforting, something that can hold weight, that can support a life’s purpose and direction. They become part of a person’s nature and character––our beliefs shape who we are. Change someone’s beliefs? In a way, you’re being asked to change their very identity.

There is an intrinsic defect in the organ. Language overstates. Statements of the infinite are usually felt to be unjust to the finite, and blasphemous.

So, what tools are available? Well, there’s the direct approach, and there’s the indirect approach.

Direct Approach. Face the disagreement squarely, center the conflict, and confront the other side directly. Attack and refute point by point, no half measures, no attempt made at compromise. Argument elevated to its sharpest point. Webster defines the verb “confute” as “to overwhelm in argument: refute conclusively.” Many mistakenly believe there’s always an “acceptable middle ground.” Very often, this is simply not the case. These are pitched, protracted battles––contentious, polemical, at times bellicose, belligerent.

Shall I say, then, that, as far as we can trace the natural history of the soul, its health consists in the fulness of its reception, — call it piety, call it veneration — in the fact, that enthusiasm is organized therein. What is best in any work of art, but that part which the work itself seems to require and do; that which the man cannot do again, that which flows from the hour and the occasion, like the eloquence of men in a tumultuous debate?

Indirect Approach. Put the essence of the disputed matter to the side, and seek out those areas where an agreement can be reached. Keep an open mind, work within the other side’s framework and boundary, and pay attention to their point of view. Webster defines the verb “suggest” as “to offer for consideration or as a hypothesis.” Work indirectly, obliquely––it’s almost as if you’re not challenging their basic mindset, but rather seeking to work within it, to accommodate it. Perhaps, in this manner, they will gradually move closer to where you need them to be.

What is all history but the work of ideas, a record of the incomputable energy which his infinite aspirations infuse into man? Has any thing grand and lasting been done? Who did it? Plainly not any man, but all men: it was the prevalence and inundation of an idea.

There are shades of grey. What motivates the other person’s deepest belief system? How many layers toward the inner-center does this reach? Ask: What is this person moving away from? What is this person striving toward? What likely will be their reaction when I suggest…? Can an alternative view of things be shown and come to be accepted?

The only way into nature is to enact our best insight. Instantly we are higher poets, and can speak a deeper law.

Young people come to find this out, often with some expenditure of scar tissue. They realize the certainty of their “obvious” beliefs may not be shared by others. I don’t understand this. Perhaps I should raise my voice. Do they not hear? Ideas have to be given time to take hold, an opportunity to take root, to grow in sunlight. Patience, steadfastness, persistence––keep speaking, keep writing, a straight line, you’re right, your idea will prevail, it has to…it will.

I draw from this faith courage and hope. All things are known to the soul. It is not to be surprised by any communication. Nothing can be greater than it. Let those fear and those fawn who will. The soul is in her native realm, and it is wider than space, older than time, wide as hope, rich as love. Pusillanimity and fear she refuses with a beautiful scorn: they are not for her who putteth on her coronation robes, and goes out through universal love to universal power.

All quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Method of Nature (1841)

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