Isn’t it wonderful to be mentally flexible? For when we are, we’ll never get bent out of shape. But mental flexibility is much more than a desirable trait. It is essential for the welfare of humanity. Without it, we place our planet and ourselves in peril. Oppressive regimes inflict terror and deny human rights because they believe their way is the only way. Their rigidity of thought doesn’t tolerate freedom of expression. Even democratic nations can get carried away. “You are either for us or against us,” one says. That’ s hardly flexible. It leaves no room for compromise. It does not attempt to understand the underlying causes of the problem. It is a reaction instead of a solution.
Religious institutions are no better. Claiming to be the representatives of God on earth, they act in the most ungodly fashion. Their inflexible views divide humanity into separate camps: ‘true believers’ and ‘heathens.’ Rather than embrace diversity, they seek to crush it. They have no compunction as they kill their brothers and sisters of different faiths. But why be surprised? The god they believe in is a vengeful god, a jealous god, an intolerant god.
My aim isn’t to discuss religion or politics here, but to point out how critical, critical thinking is. What about our society? Do we have the ability to handle different situations in different ways? Are we able to see things from different perspectives? Can we solve problems in new ways? Can we understand and appreciate the viewpoint of others? If so, why are there so many divorces? How can husbands and wives arrive at a consensus when their thinking, attitude, and perspective are so rigid? “I’m right and you’ re wrong,” is nothing more than an expression of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and rejection.
Besides openness to new or different ideas, mental flexibility allows one to adjust to a changing environment. Much of the stress we experience in life is due to the inability to accept change. But accept it we must, for it is both inevitable and the very nature of life. When a Mozart symphony suddenly takes a twist in a new direction, we don’t get upset because we were unprepared for it. On the contrary, we are delighted by the surprise. Life is no different. It is a symphony. Those who are flexible relish its many twists and turns, ups and downs, ambiguity and uncertainty.
There are other aspects of flexibility, such as learning from past mistakes and willingness to take risks. At times, politicians are criticized for changing their minds. “They lack consistency. They have no strength of conviction.” so the argument goes. But what are minds for, if not for changing? Changing one’s mind is not a sign of weakness, but of flexibility and growth. Flexibility also promotes mental and physical health because it frees us from stress, as well as toxic emotions, such as resentment, anger, and fear. To the flexible person, life is not about survival but about enjoyment.
All right, agreed. Mental flexibility is important. So what are some steps we can take to cultivate it?
1. When you’re listening to the viewpoint of another and are tempted to disagree with it, remember that you will be changing your own opinion in the future. So, does it really make any sense to debate the point? Rather, remain open. The more ideas you have to draw upon, the more flexible, creative, and solution oriented you will become.
2. Did you ever notice that the only people we consider intelligent are those that share our opinions? If so, it’s time to get rid of that narrow viewpoint. When your companions give their opinions, rather than focusing on the differences between theirs and yours, focus on the differences their opinions have made in their lives. If their opinions have made them better people, it’s time to think about changing your viewpoint.
3. Don’t cling to your opinions, for they are nothing more than knowledge in the making, nothing more than potential truth. Remember that you don’t own the truth because it is shared by all. Everyone is necessary to arrive at the big picture.
4. To benefit from the wisdom of others, don’t get turned off by how they present their opinions. Focus on the substance, not on the presentation; focus on the gift, not on the package.
5. Whenever the opinions of others make you feel uncomfortable, don’t run and hide. But be especially alert for hidden treasure. For whenever we are forced to step outside of our comfort zone, we grow.
6. To be flexible, we must be willing to break from tradition, custom, and habit. We must be willing to question everything. Keep an open mind, but remember gullibility enslaves you to the opinions of others, while skepticism frees you to discover the value or uselessness inherent in the ideas of others.
7. Don’t rely exclusively on the left hemisphere of your brain. That is, don ‘t depend solely on logic or rational thought. Increase your use of the right hemisphere, which is the seat of intuition and creativity. Become more attuned to the arts, nature, beauty, and the wisdom of your inner voice.
8. Learn from any source you can. Friends, acquaintances, and coworkers. Books, magazines, and newspapers. New information is the source of new options, and new options offer greater flexibility.
9. Adjust your attitude and perspective. They filter reality, acting as colored glasses, distorting everything you see. When you begin to view strangers as friends you haven’t made yet, instead of potential threats, you’ll become more flexible.
10. Learn to view the world through the eyes of another. How would you see things differently if you were an infant, five years old, or a teenager? What if you were a member of the opposite sex? Or ninety years old? Or gay? What if you were confined to a wheelchair or a prison cell? What if you were raised in poverty in the third world or were homeless in North America? What if you were a faithful follower of a different religion? What if you were a traffic cop, schoolteacher, or bank teller? Use the power of your imagination to place you into as many roles as possible, for flexibility consists of understanding the viewpoints of others and learning as much as possible from them.
Would you agree that different opinions are not the enemy? Wouldn’t you say that, on the contrary, they are the source of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and power? But all that power would be denied to us unless we had an open mind. I was about to end by suggesting you rigidly adhere to the principle of flexibility, but to rigidly adhere to any principle wouldn’t be flexible, would it? Anyway, you know what I mean . .