, Salem, MA

March 25, 2014

Watson: There are ways to see more

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — Last week’s column generated a lot of interest — both publicly and privately expressed. It referred to a novel, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” which told the story of how a father and a son became tragically alienated from one another because of their different world views.

The father was a devout Hasidic Jew, and his young son was growing into a skilled — but norm-challenging — artist. The father was an honorable, admirable man, but he raged disproportionately at what he saw as the unworthiness and profanity of his iconoclastic son.

The novel is a cautionary tale to warn us of the dangers of holding onto our orthodoxies — whatever they may be — too rigidly. Furthermore, we learn those unquestionable beliefs are often a product of powerful personal experiences.

Some readers resisted the idea that everybody has orthodoxies. Others pointed to the ideas of certain groups and said, “They hold onto flawed ideas.” Still others wondered how they could hold their own beliefs in doubt and still speak and act according to them.

Those points and questions are important and timely because their dynamics are critically in play today in the United States and in friction-filled locations across the globe. For it is feuding ideologies, disparate experiences and unyielding orthodoxies that often prevent people from understanding one another. And if we do not comprehend one another, it is easy to not respect each other, and worse.

It is comfortable and extremely easy to let our past experiences and our perspectives blind us and imprison us. How do we prevent that?

The British writer, Doris Lessing, who died last year at age 94, wrote a book, “Prisons We Choose To Live Inside,” that addresses that very question.

First, she makes a convincing case that every one of us — without exception — can exhibit the worst intolerance. Anybody who looks at the full play of human nature throughout history is likely to agree with her.

But, to our credit, she says, we have formidable powers of reason, sanity, judgment and civilization to employ against the temptations of arrogance, myopia and, even, fanaticism. We have the ability to be detached and objective, to observe ourselves from other viewpoints and to criticize ourselves.

Lessing says that we live in an age filled with influences — sometimes commercial, sometimes political — that encourage the primacy of our emotions. There are other forces — equally unhelpful — that encourage us to embrace dogma, certainty, black-and-white thinking, and us-versus-them postures in circumstances where those reactions are inappropriate. She advises us to be vigilant about government, big business, technology, media, advertising and illusions of any sort.

She isn’t telling us to not have opinions. (In fact, anybody self-aware enough to be concerned about the limits of his own vision is quite likely to be also attentive to events and ideas.) But she is recommending that we believe them provisionally and gracefully with an awareness that additional experience will almost inevitably cause us to adjust them. She cautions against self-righteousness and over-simplification.

Our ideas should not be precisely the same thing as our identity or we will be overly defensive and far less able to change our mind.

There are practical tests to examine the way we believe. Can we criticize our own positions? Can we find merits in philosophies or policies we don’t support? Can we list the pros and cons of important arguments? Can we walk in another’s shoes? Do we respect those we disagree with? Do we comprehend them?

Do we accept that our pasts and our experiences often play a huge role in determining our perspectives? Can we hold two (or more) contradictory ideas — maybe even truths — in our mind at the same time? Can we accept uncertainty?

Lessing’s own experiences make her a wise voice. She grew up in Rhodesia and observed firsthand the fanaticism behind white supremacy there. Later, in England, she joined the Communist Party until — repelled by its tyranny in 1956 — she abandoned the ideology.

But she never became cynical about hope, politics or human thinking. She says that the slow march toward justice and objectivity evidenced in the long arc of human history is proof that we repeatedly defeat bouts of blindness.

She believes in western democracy and its freedoms, openness and practices. Though it is imperfect, and though it can be gripped by lunacy, it offers the possibility of reform, and it eschews coercion. Democracy at its best does not imprison us.

Lessing believed in the power of books (among other things) to open our minds. She says that the best fiction — which is akin to anthropology — can develop in us empathy, equanimity, perspective and humility. In a good novel, we are challenged to meet and comprehend individuals and ways that we would not otherwise come across.

Lastly, to see more, the role of language is critical. To learn, to grow, to compare experiences with others and — not incidentally — to sustain a democracy, takes productive communication. The quality of our words — clear, well-chosen, dignified, fair and seeking, as well as asserting — is critical to engendering both self-awareness and our comprehension of others.

Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at