The Third Other
The only thing harder to change than the way you think is to change the way someone else thinks. The recent explosion in the Middle East is just another example of how hard it is to shift points of view. Politics, religion, race, class and ethics are all places where we can get stuck in power struggles with others, and where movement is rarely made. In my experience there are basically two environments which will lead to a softening, expansion or change in one’s thinking.
The first is when an individual is engaged in conversation with people who are mostly like them but a little different. This like-affinity group is one that wields enormous power and influence. For example, if I am a deeply religious Christian I am more likely to shift a political point of view if it comes from conversation with other Christians in my church. Any parent with teenagers knows this. Our children's peers are critical points of influence in their lives…some would say the most critical.
The second thing that shifts thinking is when an individual is put into a totally different setting, one that rattles his or her sensibilities, and challenges one's frame of reference. This shaking up of one’s view allows rigidity of perspective to loosen and a new point of view to emerge. People who volunteer in organizations radically different than their personal experience (think soup kitchen) or travel to countries that bear no resemblance to home often report their “lives changed” through the expansion of the experience. As a general rule, the more intense the event, the greater the potential for thought change.
Years ago I knew someone who was an extraordinary example of this principle. As an adult in the middle of an unsatisfying life she came to realize her dissatisfactions were rooted in two significant "issues". The first was a deep phobia of death, a fear which even prevented her from attending her father’s funeral. More disturbing was an irrational antagonism towards Indians that was clearly racist. She realized that to change her life for the better, she would have to resolve these darker parts of her character.
So she embarked on a brave and radical solution. She quit her job and went to the one place where she knew she would be immersed in her “stuff”—Calcutta. She chose to spend one year volunteering at Mother Theresa’s Orphanage working with dying children. Every day, she immersed herself in the two issues which had kept her stuck.
Of course, it changed her life. She returned a different woman, both in outlook and in character. Today, she is a practicing Hindu with deep connections into the US Indian community. She has also become quite spiritual about death, and no longer holds irrational angst about it. “When you find yourself seeing dead bodies almost every day” she told me upon her return, “it awakens you to the natural rhythms of life and the inevitability of death.” It was a brave and powerful example of challenging one’s frame of reference.
While we can’t say with certainty what will change one’s thinking we can say what won’t. Arguing the fine points of difference, theology or political view simply don’t work. If you really want change, then find a common ground interest that doesn’t require movement on the difference. I call this common interest the "third other". Let’s face it, I will probably never feel the same as a traditional Catholic neighbor on abortion, but we both agree that our local environment is important and can work together in shared agreement. If successful there, who knows where it will take us.
It is in the success of this “third other” that the greatest potential for movement and hope occurs.