July 24, 2015

Openness to New Ideas and Experiences

Spider at Web
Spider at Web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've mentioned before that I have an irrational fear of spiders going back to my childhood. The intensity of this particular fear is much milder these days than it used to be. Years ago, I found it difficult even to look at a close-up photograph of a spider. If I found a spider and was not able to kill it immediately because it escaped while I was trying to do so, I would have trouble sleeping. Where was it? What if it crawled on me while I was asleep? Today, it takes a close encounter with a fairly large one to get much of a reaction. But as I discovered recently, even that does not seem to have the impact it once did.

While working on a project outside the other day, I stumbled into a spider web I hadn't seen. This resulted in five (I counted) large spiders falling from somewhere above me and landing directly on top of my head. It sounds like something one would see in a cartoon, but it really happened. I am still amazed that I did not completely freak out when this happened. It certainly startled me, and I was quick to brush them off my head and chest, but that was about it. I didn't have a panic attack, begin screaming, rip my clothes off on the spot and shake them out, or anything of the sort. Had someone been watching this incident, they would have had little idea what had even fell on my head.

Had this happened to me years ago, I would have done all these things. I would have freaked out, screamed, shook my clothes out, and been visibly distressed for some time. I might have even had nightmares about it later. And the strange thing is that if you had described this scenario to me just a few days ago and asked me how I would react if it happened now, I would have still predicted a massive freak out. I would have been wrong. It seems that the strength of this fear has subsided much more than I was aware.

Why am I wasting your time with this oddly irrelevant tale? I'm not convinced it really is completely irrelevant. I think this might be a case of me having incorrect assumptions that were allowed to persist because I did not test them. I maintained them because they had previously been true. Had this not happened to me, I would have continued believing that I was terrified of spiders and predicting that I'd be unable to handle such an encounter. Had I intentionally tested this belief earlier, I probably would have found out that I had been mistaken.

I can't help but wonder what other beliefs I hold that are wrong but that endure because I haven't tested them or haven't found myself in a situation requiring me to confront them. I can't help wondering if this is a valid reason to expose ourselves to new ideas and experiences, even if we anticipate having negative reactions to some of them. Perhaps there is something to be gained from an approach to freethought that seeks out new ideas and experiences rather than attempting to isolate oneself in "safe spaces" and associate only with like-minded individuals. Maybe the act of considering ideas on their own merit and seeking novel experiences is a valuable one that can help prevent the sort of close-mindedness that often leads to trouble.

What a somewhat more relevant example? I have long had fairly negative attitudes toward libertarianism because of associations I've made between it and right-wing extremism. And yet, the more I've exposed myself to libertarians and allowed myself to fairly consider their ideas, the clearer it has become that many of these associations had little basis in reality. There is still plenty about which I disagree with libertarians, but I've also found much to like that I didn't know was there. Finding out that I was wrong and changing my mind has been an exhilarating experience. It is almost as if my world has expanded a bit as a result.