2021 may be considered the year when everyone knew it all, when in fact they didn’t.
The vast amount of information available to us today could lead to an informed people, carefully considering different points of view, both reliant on and skeptical of experts who nonetheless must be considered for knowledge we don’t possess, making truly informed decisions about how we should conduct ourselves in an ever-challenging ever-changing world. The wealth of well thought out but still contradictory conclusions of people expert in their fields should humble us. But it doesn’t.
Instead, in spite of the fact that we have easy access to all of the knowledge of our civilization at our fingertips, we seem to have cast the true inquiry that has so benefitted us throughout time aside for the easy and self-satisfying allure of opinion.
And now opinion carries the weight of fact.
But I don’t know. At the end of a year when everyone felt empowered to present their opinions as gospel truth, despite contradictory evidence that should at least have been considered, I truly don’t know. There’s a tremendous sense of liberation in that.
I can be a know-it-all as well as anyone. Anyone with a weekly newsletter, a couple of books, and a slate of articles and podcast interviews surely overweights his own point of view. But this year even I lost touch with the basic truth that underlies much of my work on mental health: our mind is constantly commenting on our behavior and our certitude, and much of this commentary is misleading, if not patently untrue.
I took some bold steps this year to solidify what I thought was right and came away with a slew of doubts. On the one hand I became a fellow of a conservative think tank. On the other my family fostered children who entered the country as unaccompanied minors without documentation. Strong opinions about what is right and what is wrong drove me to these actions, and these actions completely obliterated those strong opinions.
What I discovered this year, what liberated me from the narrow cell of certainty, is ambivalence.
Ambivalence is not a state of not caring. It is not a characteristic of apathy. It is the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone. From a place of ambivalence we can truly grow. In ambivalence we can lose the naivety that leads us down dangerous paths following unfounded ideas into places where we become so rigid we lose our ability to deal respectfully with other people and their ideas. We lose the ability to doubt. As a result, knowledge can elude us, especially self-knowledge, and we can find ourselves locked into a defensive stance, seemingly always under threat, only able to fight back against ideas that contradict our own opinions.
Spend a little time meditating and you’ll probably discover that this is what our minds do best.
Our minds comment incessantly on our behavior. All too often this commentary is judgmental, negative and full of thoughts that have no bearing in reality. But, in this internal dialog, just as in our limiting discourse with people we disagree with, we dig in. We hold on tight to our defeatist perspective of ourselves in a desperate attempt not to counter our own self-identity, even if this identity is formed by thoughts that have no evidence to support them. As a result, we end up making the thoughts that pummel us bear the weight of truth.
It may be too much to ask people to reconsider everything they believe in a quest to offset our self-talk with some semblance of truth. We are formed by our thoughts. It’s an awful lot to ask people to agree that if our thoughts define us, and if many of these thoughts are untrue, then the very nature of self must be questioned. This is a step too far for many people to take, and unnecessary for positive mental health.
But a touch of ambivalence can be very healthy. Allow yourself to consider that the self-talk that drives you into anxiety or unhealthy mood changes should be contradicted by a close examination of the truth.
Just as the rigidity of strict adherence to our mere opinions can destroy our relationships with other people, a rigid, unquestioning acquiescence to defeatist thoughts about ourselves can ruin our mental health.
I stopped meditating in early 2021. The house was too crowded, work was devouring the little time I had to spend with my family, and I became caught up in internecine debates about issues that have very little impact on my day-to-day life. While I have to start again this newfound sense of ambivalence I have discovered at the close of this year is corrective. With a healthy touch of doubt and intellectual honesty everything can become a meditation, and every act and every thought can become an opportunity to consider the vast differences between opinion and truth – the yawning chasm between the person we think we are and the one we may truly be.
A healthy resolution for 2022 would be to engage in attentive, empathetic, sharing conversation with people you disagree with. Why not let the first person be yourself.
My new book, Practicing Mental Illness – Meditation, Movement and Meaningful Work to Manage Challenging Moods, will be published March 1st. It tells the story of my recovery from severe bipolar disorder and details the adjunct therapies that have helped me, and many whom I have taught, successfully manage life with a mood disorder. Please pre-order a copy here.