An Unsettling Realization: Ideas, Identity, Inclusion

I discovered something unsettling about myself recently.

I enjoy thinking about why I think things. How’s that for an odd second sentence?

As I grow older, I’m trying to hold more of my ideas about the world more loosely and not attach them to my identity too much. It’s difficult though. It seems like I constantly catch myself closing to information or ways of approaching something because I’ve attached my identity to an idea.

Some ideas I’ve come to clutch more tightly. They’re dear to me. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to hold all of my ideas loosely so I don’t dig in my heels the instant l feel something pulling in another direction .

All that to say, unfortunately, when I change my thinking on one particular thing, it’s far too easy to begin forming my identity with those who may have introduced me to that way of thinking. It’s easy to be sharp in one area of thinking and sloppy in several others, because I’m excited about a new thought or theory (because it’s new, it has interesting implications, and it’s shiny.)

This might sound stupid, but I get embarrassed when I find out that I was wrong about something. Even saying it sounds silly–as if reality cares about what I think about it, as if me thinking the right or wrong thing about something makes me any better or worse than anyone else. I realize that thinking correctly is preferable to incorrectly because it sometimes affects how we react to situations, but that’s not always what it’s about for me. Sometimes it’s just a bunch of silly pride.

So when I change my mind, the next step is to distance myself from the person I was when I thought incorrectly about it. Sometimes that includes saying things that clearly separate me from those silly people I left back there, which is stupid, but I do it anyway. Too often, those with the ideas I just left become the new target. I’ve found the truth now so if everyone will follow me, thank you, I’ll show them where I found it, or suffer my scorn. (I try not to let it go that far too often, but that’s what’s behind it.)

Moving on in the vein of ideas, I recently heard one that made a lot of sense of what I’m describing in myself, and what I’ve seen in a hundred internet brawls discussions. Brain science allows us to make some sense of this. There’s a small part of your brain called the thalamus that’s located above your spinal column. For the sake of brevity, and the point of this post, I’ll oversimplify: it’s responsible for your sense of self: who you understand yourself to be. It’s how we make sense of who we are in relation to everything else.

That’s pretty cool, but there’s one problem.

All the data you take in passes through the thalamus, this part of the brain that tells you who you are. In other words, all ideas are filtered through your identity. If ideas conflict with your identity, chances are, you’ll shed the idea (even if it’s correct); you’ll resist it, until you find a way to fit it into your identity, or until you find a new identity that includes that idea.

Have you ever recoiled at an idea when you first heard it, and later wondered how in the world you could have questioned it at all? Me too. That’s your handy thalamus at work, telling you “Safe idea. Unsafe idea!”

“The more you see the less you know

The less you find out as you go

I knew much more then

Than I do now.”


Here’s what I’m saying with all this.

The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know. It’s kind of surprising, but that’s how it’s turned out. When I was younger, I heard older people say things like that and now I know what they’re talking about.

There’s just a lot of stuff we don’t know–way more than we have any idea. Right now there are things we don’t know we don’t know. All of us are wrong about a lot of things, and there’s a very good chance that’s just fine. The world went on just like before when I was wrong about other things, and it will continue to do so even though I’m wrong about things now.

I could go on about this stuff for a really long time, but I’d like to be able to crawl back out of this rabbit hole before it’s too late for all of us.

As much as possible, I want us to remember in all our interactions, how our identities and ideas are linked–how close around the corner our biases toward certainty are lurking.

I want to continue to slowly kill this natural-born habit of fusing unbreakable bonds between my identity and the ideas I currently hold.

I want to be as gracious with people as I want them to be with me.

I want to work on being willing to accept truth even from unsavory sources; even when my identity tells me I should be prejudiced toward it.

I want to remember that if things were as clear-cut on an issue as I’d sometimes like to make them, chances are we’d probably have cracked the code by now and wouldn’t be having the conversation.

I want to engage in patient discussions of discovery, rather than trying to punch people with knockout arguments.

I want to do better at having conversations where there’s room for everyone to say their piece, not just people who tow the Ryan Party line.

That’s what I hope is reality for me when I’m older and wiser than I am now. Hopefully, if I aim for it long enough, and live long enough, I’ll get near it someday. If enough of us want that, maybe we can help each other.


One comment on “An Unsettling Realization: Ideas, Identity, Inclusion

  1. Andrew says:

    My friend, you are a wise man. Thank you.

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