When I’m certain I’m right about something, I try to prove myself wrong.
Proving myself wrong is the best way I know to form an educated opinion. It gets me out of my little bubble where strong and invisible currents are pulling me in one specific direction, where I hear only what I want to hear. It forces me to acknowledge that there is a much bigger picture than the one right in front of me.
More often, though, it makes me feel more uncertain about what I believe. When I seek all sides of the story, I usually find that issues are more complex than a simple statistic makes them out to be. I find that the world is not so black and white as I pretend, and that the truth may not be as pleasant or clean as I’d hoped. I learn that two truths can coexist, or no clear truth may exist at all.
This conflicts with the order of the world as we know it. As kids we learn quickly about good and bad. The traditional educational system rewards us for making the right decision between two options. Rather than being rewarded for the right questions, we are rewarded for the right answer. Ultimately, there is only one right answer, at least according to the system. So we grow up in a world we see as inherently black and white. We are conditioned to be lazy thinkers who cannot cope with uncertainty. Realizing there isn’t one perfect answer challenges our worldview and leaves us depressed and unhappy.
It only makes sense that we jump to conclusions quickly and settle for either black or white. Few of us have the time nor intentions to dive into the endless sea of the grey zones. Chances are, we might never find the real truth, and already that thought is deeply disturbing.
While it could easily make me feel apathetic, this uncertainty pushes me. Instead of feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, I choose to make it feel like a game: Can I pull a card out of the pile that changes the whole board around? Can I send myself back to “Go?” All the rules in this game are nonsensical, contradictory, maybe even unfair. I may find myself taking three steps back for every one step forward, or getting stuck for a while in the same place. But the point of this game is not to beat someone else to the finish line. There may not even be a finish line. The point is to simply exist as happily as I can on this game board, and help others do the same.
Proving ourselves wrong goes against human nature (see: “confirmation bias”). It also takes some work. It’s much easier to prove someone else wrong. It’s also easy to hear an alarming statistic or someone else’s opinion, take it as truth and leave it at that. Because who has time to look deeper? Today, where all the information in the world is available to us and new information is available every minute, we tend to take shortcuts. It feels impossible to digest all the information available to us, so we skim instead. We accept what we read or hear at its face, then move on at risk of being left behind. We are in fact the TL;DR generation. But almost nothing remotely complex in this world can be dismissed by TL;DR. There is always more to the story.
One thing is for certain: Everyone has an agenda when presenting information to you. That agenda is usually one of good intent, at least from that person’s perspective. That doesn’t mean it’s correct. Watch any documentary and you will feel fired up about the subject by the end. Search online for the opposite opinion and you’ll discover endless information that supports it. That information may not be right either. And new information may become available that changes everything (for example, recent research suggests that pasta does not make you fat. An easy theory to accept without question). Not only do we have to decide for ourselves, we must welcome the possibility that we might be wrong.
The physicist David Bohm said, “If we are to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds to or otherwise defends his own ideas.”
David doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have our own ideas or opinions. I think he means that we should be open and eager to listen. He calls it “creative movement,” words that evoke flexibility and color and change and growth. Imagine what this looks like in a conversation with someone else, or in our own internal dialogue. It’s a conversation that builds up and out, rather than shutting the other side down. When we are open to the possibility that we may be wrong, we gain knowledge. We gain empathy. We gain depth. The point is that we gain.