There is a fortune cookie message that I’ve taped to my fridge which reads, “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
I imagine, I hope, that this is true. But there’s an intrinsic problem with the sentiment: Sometimes, people are not willing to open their minds to a new idea. All too often, we don’t want our minds to be stretched. We’re happy as we are. Because sometimes it’s just easier to stay within our own little boxes.
New ideas can challenge our basic assumptions about ourselves and the people around us. They can uproot ideas we hold sacred, truths that we believe are self-evident and immutable.
This is especially true when it comes to other people. No matter how often we say that we don’t judge on appearances, that we’re tolerant and understanding of people who are different, we still fall back into seeing ourselves as distinct from Others.
So when Moses sent a dozen scouts to check out the promised land in this week’s Torah portion, it is no surprise that 10 of them came back with closed minds, unable to see the people there as anything but adversaries to be feared.
The twelve scouts were brave men of repute, leaders of their tribes. And yet, on their return to the camp, they sounded anything but brave: “the land you sent us to does indeed flow with milk and honey… but the people who inhabit it are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large.” (Numbers 13:27-28).
They didn’t pause to think that fortified cities might suggest that the residents are afraid of invaders. They were too fixated on size; in fact, when one of their companions publicly disagreed, they embellished their first report: “All the people we saw are men of great size… we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so must we have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33).
The scouts were unwilling, perhaps even unable, to entertain the idea that they might be more alike than different from the people they were sent to observe.
In her book “The Opposite of Hate” Sally Kohn writes about her experience as a liberal journalist working alongside conservative colleagues at Fox News. She routinely received hundreds of online messages that were hate-filled, angry, incredibly offensive. So she decided to learn about some of these people, and began writing and calling them, opening one-on-one conversations. She writes:
“It was surprisingly profound to realize that the monsters who were so mean to me online were just ordinary people. That they chuckle and stutter and say “uh” just like I do…That they are just imperfect, messy, complicated people, whom I have more in common with than not.”
Kohn subtitled her book “a field guide to repairing our humanity.” In researching and writing it, she challenged her own preconceived notions about the Other, and in so doing, discovered that they are not so very different. And she learned that, like them, she too harbors prejudices and preconceived notions about people with whom she disagrees.
Reading Kohn’s book, I am more inclined to remove the fortune cookie message and replace it with a reminder to myself that my goal is not to stretch my mind, or anyone else’s, but rather to work towards repairing our humanity. Or perhaps I will replace it with a quote from Albert Einstein:
“Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men…for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy.”
What is that bond? It is our common humanity.