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Open Mind, Open World

Tall Dark & Dreamy was wearing nothing but a towel the other night, as he stood in his kitchen, me seated at the counter, while we drank red wine and talked. (I arrived early, he left work late, it was raining, it would have been rude for him to make me wait in the rain at the door…) As a result, I had a bit of a one-track mind. My one-track mind screeched on a collision course with reality when I heard him describe himself as closed-minded, a statement that made no sense to me whatsoever.

Thing is, he meant it. I think he actually believed that he was closed-minded. I think he believes that. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. (Well, I could say he didn’t look delicious in the towel, that would be further from the truth, but….) He is one of the most open-minded people I’ve ever met. And I have put that to the test, believe me.

So I can’t help but wonder. Have all of us crazy, liberal, academic types given “open-minded” a meaning that we didn’t intend? Have we, for instance, given it a very closed definition into which many people don’t think they fit? Hmmmm, that could be a problem.

Not all that long ago, I was in a similar situation with a crazy, liberal type – who we’ll call Angry, Balding & Hairy – who used to refer to himself as open-minded all the time, and he was easily the most closed minded person I’d ever met.

Yup, I think that maybe open-minded has come to mean “liberal,” while closed-minded has come to mean “conservative.” And that just aint’ right. Open-minded is a state of being, not a set of beliefs. It is the ability to accept and process views different from your own. To allow that other ideas – and the people who have them – can peacefully coexist in the world with your ideas. To believe that it is possible for you to take in new information, change your mind and expand your worldview. It has nothing to do with the views and values by which you chose to live your life, but with the active ability to allow engagement with different views and values.

Tall Dark & Dreamy is definitively open-minded. He was raised in a small town, by a conservative family with traditional values that included Christianity and republican politics. He is very focused on his career, polite and very fiscally conservative. Angry Balding & Hairy is a politically liberal, world-traveler, who openly talks about thinking that parties should all have more group sex, people need to do more drugs and that republicans, smokers and religious people are all stupid and deserve to die.

Tall Dark & Dreamy and I have easily had some of the best conversations I’ve had with anyone. We come from entirely different worldviews, and have talked for hours about our varying beliefs. We’ve done it without judgment or frustration, but an endless and delicious string of “why,” “how,” and “what if?” When we’ve talked about things that I’ve done and he hasn’t, he simply says, “my experience has been different, but I look forward to that.” When we disagree on something, he says, “ya, we just see this differently.” When I want to try something that he’s never tried, he says, “sure, let’s try it.” When I have introduced him to people who are totally different than those he grew up with, he has been kind, asked questions, engaged in conversation. I have yet to hear him say an unkind thing about a group of people he doesn’t know. I have yet to hear him pass judgment on someone in a way that would preclude interaction. Though he can say, and does, “my belief system is different than that.”

So why did he refer to himself as closed-minded? Well, at the time, we were talking about sex. (Did I mention that he was wearing a towel, we were drinking wine and I was having a one-track mind?) I don’t remember specifically what acts we were discussing (I’ve been doing a lot of weird research lately) but his response was that he knew he would not want to do “that.” I think it was probably something about gay sex, and he is decidedly not even a little bit gay. So, in saying that he wouldn’t do that, he said, “I’m closed minded.”

What? Being straight does not make you closed minded, it makes you straight. Hating people for being gay makes you closed-minded. But, in his mind – I’m betting lots of other minds – having more “normal” values and behavior patterns means being closed-minded.

Not so. Take Angry Balding & Hairy, for instance. He’s as wild and kinky as they come (well, he thinks of himself that way,) and he flat out refuses to associate with anyone who is fat, religious, smokes or supports unions. He believes that all of those things are a sign of stupidity and those people are not worth his time. That is closed-minded, even if you voted for Obama while smoking a spliff.  Some of the most liberal people I know are the most dogmatically closed-minded. I know more than a handful of “crazy liberal hippie types” who pass judgment on people all the time, and they are the closed-minded ones although they wrongfully accuse others of being closed-minded.

(One trip to Burning Man will show you a bunch of people who think of themselves as open-minded, while they all fall into the same dress code, language, set of rules and expectations that is as uniform and restrictive as any sorority or Baptist Church.)

No. Being open-minded is about being able to think. It is about being able to hold incongruent thoughts in your head, process them and not explode. And in so doing, the open-minded person exercises their brain, and I have to think it makes them smarter.

It’s like Frank Zappa said, “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.”

What’s interesting to me is that in almost every way, Tall Dark & Dreamy and I have the same values, desires, patterns. We even discipline our kids in the same way. But he sees us as very different. I think it’s the same way he sees himself as closed-minded. We started in very different places, and wandered very different paths to get where we are, but that night, we were in the same kitchen, drinking wine, having a conversation. We were literally in the same place. And we are in the same metaphorical place too. But he doesn’t see it.

Because, I think, we’ve all spent too much time looking at where people come from and how they define themselves, rather than where we are, where we’re going, and how we interact with the world. We define ourselves by our differences, rather than our similarities.

It’s never about definitions, it’s about actions. It’s about intent. It’s about the ability to grow and change and think and treat the world with integrity and openness while being true to who we are.

Which is the whole point of knowing each other. To explore what we can do together. To each other. No matter where you come from, if your mind is open, you can go anywhere you want. And I want to go there. And there. And there…..


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