Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How Flexible is Your World View: or Weltangschuung, if you're into that sort of thing

What is your world view?  World view is a common phrase used to describe one’s construction of what the world looks like and how it operates.  We could get fancy and call it Weltangschuung, but let’s stick with world view.  In fact let’s mess with it as ordinary people interested in how we and others see the world about us in the context of everyday life.

Each of us has a mental image or map of what the world looks like and how it operates, but not everyone can describe it in terms others can easily understand.  They may not even be able to describe it in terms they understand, but their everyday conversation and assumptions about how things are speak on their behalf.  Each world view has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is us and our immediate surroundings.  Beyond that, some can see far, and some not.  Some worlds encompass the known universe, and some are limited to what can be seen and experienced within convenient reach.  Some are insatiably curious about what is yet to be discovered, others are content with what they’re sure they already know.  Variations between them are infinite. 

Over the years, I’ve been on fire and medial calls where the victims and their families lived in a world so small it barely encompassed their immediate surroundings and a few friends.  What they understood about those small worlds were assumed to be true about most things outside them.  They were aware of people living in different worlds, but those other worlds might as well have been on other planets, so irrelevant were they to anything faced on a day-to-day basis.  A borderline homeless friend lives in three worlds.  One exists for a few days at a time, limited to what is needed to survive them.  Another exists as the perfect town of warm, friendly people where he will at last have a nice job and comfortable home.  The final one exists in the memory of his lifetime of higher education and many travels.  Which one gets presented depends on mood and medication.  You’ve probably met, or are related to, people who’ve lamented that you don’t live in their world, and they can’t understand the world you live in, so it would be better if you didn’t interact at all. 

What I’ve been observing lately is the disorientation that occurs when one’s world view is demonstrated to be incorrect, or when different worlds collide.  World views are built from the bottom up beginning with family, close friends and neighborhoods.  We establish concrete images of who they are and how they function in the immediate world of everyday life.  No doubt early childhood educators have a deeper understanding of how that happens, but I’m more interested in the world view we developed in early adulthood.  It’s from that place that we construct understandings of events, people, and places as they unfold in our adult lives.  When a well developed adult world view is locked in, anything that reveals its errors is disorienting.  It creates uncomfortable questions.  Who am I in relationship to him, her, them, if he, she, they are not who I thought they were?  What am I if the articles of belief that define me are no longer true?  How do I accommodate events in the greater world, if my immediate world no longer works the way I always knew it did?

Disorientation like this can happen in small and big ways.  Here’s a small way example.   An old friend I haven’t seen in over twenty years recently wrote challenging my politics based on what he remembered from the Reagan era.  For him, that moment in time forever fixed who I am in relationship to who he is today.  It’s mildly disorienting to step into an old relationship confident that you know who the other is, only to discover they aren’t there.  In fact, they don’t even exist anymore.  Anyone who has gone to a high school reunion, having been away for several decades, knows what that feels like. 

On a more serious note, family members who separate to far distant places often assign attributes to their now distant relatives that were fixed in their adolescent years.  Coming together after many years of separation forces them to ask, ‘Who are these people?  If they’re not the people I always thought they were, who am I in relation to them?’  That can be tough if one’s self identity is rooted in a family structure that no longer exists.  ‘Who am I if I am not who I thought I was?’ is as uncomfortable and disorienting as any question could be.

The cornerstones on which our views of the world are constructed are often anchored deeply in how we define our place in our families of origin, and among friends and coworkers in our formative young adult years.  When those cornerstones get  moved, or destroyed, it’s possible that everything else will collapse.  It probably won’t, but amidst the disorientation of it all, reconstructing a workable world view can be hard to do.  Some can’t.

Among a few fundamentalist acquaintances is the fear that if something in the bible is proved to be untrue (as they have learned what truth is), the whole thing would become untrue.  So they cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary to preserve the order that gives sense to their lives.  That kind of fundamentalism isn’t limited to religion.  I see the same dynamic in one of our frequent letter writers to the local paper.  His world view is fixated on climate change as a hoax.  It’s the cornerstone of his world.  Without it, nothing else makes sense, so he has to hold on.  A farmer I know follows his life long way of farming in the face of evidence and advice to the contrary.  All the evidence may be against him, but to admit it would destroy everything he holds to be true, so he angrily hangs on.

All of us experience discomfort when our world views are challenged.  Challenges closer to how we construct our everyday lives, or how we define ourselves in relationship to those closest to us, create the greatest discomfort and disorientation.  What’s the best way to confront it?  Rage and stubbornness are the defensive moves of many.  Maybe anything else is too scary.  On the other hand, not everyone is so inflexible. 

When a worldview is defined as comfortable with adventure, curiosity, and delight in discovering new truths, I suspect it can be challenged with less discomfort, and greater willingness to make appropriate amendments.   One of my favorite examples is Sgt. Waldo Peterson, long deceased.  A local policeman in my hometown, he was a high school drop out who devoured most of the books in the local library, and lived in a world of ideas through which new worlds were constantly open to exploration.  Without his mentoring I would never had made it through 19th century Russian history, which I barely did.  There are others: physicians who thrive as musicians; a public relations consultant who is a community activist; an orchestra conductor who works on the west coast, lives on the east coast, and can drive a tractor with the best of any farmer; a retired cosmetic executive who has become a widely respected artist; a CFO who is a world class nature photographer.  Each of them, and others like them, seem to have dynamic world views able to accommodate new information without threatening foundational values because one of those values is to be open to new things.  


I wish it was possible to teach others how to be more flexible in their world views, and how to develop skills needed to successfully address disorienting change.  I have yet to see much evidence that there is.  I’m sure there are those out there who offer stimulating TED Talks and workshops, but they require willing students, and people stuck in inflexible world views are not willing.

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