Do you meet people with an open mind, or do you meet them with prejudice?
I was in the grocery store the other afternoon, chatting with the check-out gal and the elderly man who bags the groceries. He’s always struck me as the grandfatherly type who’d tell his grandkids interesting stories, or teach them silly card tricks, or just enjoy making them laugh. I have no evidence of any of this—it’s all purely in my imagination.
And don’t we do this all the time with people we don’t know? We endow them with positive traits or negative traits, often based on nothing but the sound of their voice, a gesture they make, their clothing, their age, a tattoo, whatever. Using nothing more concrete than the fantasies we create from our own personal history with “similar” people, we default to what’s familiar. Our human minds don’t do well with vacuums, so we fill the void with past references in an attempt to wrap our minds around a person who’s unfamiliar. Once we can find a category to put him or her in, then we relax a bit; we now feel we know how to deal with this person. It’s a coping skill—a way to mentally organize our world. The need to find familiarity among the unfamiliar is an automatic, largely unconscious process, and becomes particularly urgent when we’re frightened or threatened by a person (or experience) we don’t understand or think we can’t relate to.
We all do it to varying degrees. If things go well (meaning we’re open minded and receptive to the newness), then our opinions gain color and texture as we happily get to know the person. The false beliefs we started with fall away and are replaced with reality. And any accurate first impressions become confirmed.
When it goes the other way (meaning fear of the unfamiliar leads us to be distrustful and shut down from finding the truth about the person), then we default to the package of stereotypes we’ve come to believe.
The phrase “judging a book by its cover” might be coming to mind right about now. It’s really all about what you default to.
So, back to the grocery-bagging gentleman. If I hold a belief about older folks as being crotchety and slow, I probably would not have had a smile or kind word to say to this man. If I hold a belief that older people are usually charming and have much to offer, I probably would engage with him.
Fortunately, I believe the latter. But I never had a chance to start as he beat me to the punch. Obviously not restricted or influenced by any preconceived notions about me, he gave me a big smile and easily started chatting—silly, corny joking —with ease and warmth. When I laughingly asked him if he was a bit of a wise guy, he gave me this pearl: “It’s good to be a wise guy. It’s good to laugh, because then you live longer.”
And I thought: I could not have put it better myself. This gentleman was just being himself, with no worry about what I thought of him, or limitations due to what he thought of me. He concluded my afternoon with a welcomed, pleasant experience. And in the process, gave me something to remember: It’s good to laugh, because then you live longer.
I encourage you to take an honest look at your own default positions. Can you replace fear of the unfamiliar with an open mind? Wariness with warmth? Prejudice with acceptance? Like my new grocery store pal, start with a simple smile and see where it takes you.
Here are a dozen other of my favorite pearls I want to share with you. A few of these have made a Shrink Rap appearance in the past, but they bear repeating.
1. Make time to pray/meditate/ponder.
2. Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day.
3. Be kind. You have no idea what someone else’s journey is all about.
4. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.
5. Don’t spend your precious energy on gossip.
6. Dream more while you are awake.
7. Envy is unnecessary. You already have all you need.
8. You’re the one in charge of your happiness.
9. Do you really have to win every argument?
10. Make someone smile each day.
11. What other people think of you is really none of your business.
12. Everything changes.
Until next time: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer.”
— Albert Camus