A Life Lesson From a Five-Year-Old Runaway
At the age of five, on an overnight visit to my Grandparents’ house, I was fed up. Missing my own bed, I decided at 7 PM to walk the 63 miles back home in the dark rather than spending the night with them. I announced this to my Grandpa, put on my little red jacket, and headed for the door.
My Grandpa loves telling this story. I’ve heard it enough times at family gatherings that the scene is burned into my mind from an observer’s point of view. My small hand stretches up for the doorknob. Perhaps I hop a few times before I realize I can’t quite reach it. My Grandpa watches, amused.
I’m standing by the door asking him to let me out. He fixes me with a thoughtful gaze, then suggests: “don’t you want to take Mr. Bear?”
Of course I wanted to take Mr. Bear. What did I look like, an idiot? How could I have forgotten Mr. Bear!? I scramble upstairs, wrap my arms around his fuzzy body, and carry him back to the door.
“Now, let me out!” I yell. How could I be any more ready? I had Mr. Bear!
“Don’t you want to take Mr. Lion? My Grandpa asks.
Again, the man was being reasonable. Mr. Lion and Mr. Bear would offer a one-two punch of protection on my trek back home. I monkey-crawl back upstairs to grab Mr. Lion by the mane and head back to the door with the protective beast in my five-year-old fist.
This continues until I can’t see past the pile of stuffed animals in my arms. My Grandpa knows he has me in a corner. I’m tired from running up and down the stairs. He plays his trump card.
“Don’t you just want to sit in Grandpa’s lap?”
I did. It would be smart to rest before the journey. The stuffed animals fall to the floor, I drift off to sleep in the safety of Grandpa’s lap and forget all about wanting to go home.
Our Minds Are Like a Five-Year-Old Runaway
I love that story. As an educator, I think about it a lot. The beauty of it hinges on the simple fact that my grandpa at no point told me that my five-year-old legs couldn’t walk 63 miles.
There are so many ways he could have responded. He could have yelled at me. He could have told me that I was being ridiculous, and pointed out the impossibilities of what I was trying to do. But he didn’t. Grandpa let me walk away with my childish beliefs intact.
The next day, on the drive home, it hit me. I told my Dad “this is too far! I would have gotten lost.”
My grandpa’s loving response gave me the space to question my beliefs on my own. I know myself. I’m stubborn. If my grandpa had responded with anger, there’s no way I would have admitted that I couldn’t walk 63 miles.
Your Anger Won’t Change Anyone
In her Atlantic article, This Article Won’t Change Your Mind, Julie Beck lays out why people have so much trouble flipping their perspectives when presented with hard facts and figures.
‘Much of how people view the world has nothing to do with facts. That doesn’t mean truth is doomed, or even that people can’t change their minds. But what all this does seem to suggest is that, no matter how strong the evidence is, there’s little chance of it changing someone’s mind if they really don’t want to believe what it says. They have to change their own.’
With the rise of internet shaming culture, many people insist on trying to change the minds of people they disagree with through pure pointed outrage. When we look at arguments on social media, reviews on Google, and the racket that Fox and CNN are operating together, it seems like outrage is the religion of the 21st century.
Outrage created the divisive mess we’re in now. Though outrage is often a helpful tool, it is wasted on arguing with people through social media, trying to change their minds. All raging at people online does is give them martyrdom complexes about what they already believe.
One of the most entertaining psychological studies of all time was conducted in the early 1950s by social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Rieken, and Stanley Schachter. In their book, When Prophecy Fails, they study the followers of a doomsday cult whose leader predicts the end of the world every few months or so (and is always wrong). Remind you of anyone?
Every time that said cult leader predicted the world would end and it didn’t, her followers experienced “cognitive dissonance.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, here’s how Oxford English Dictionary defines it:
“the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.”
Essentially, it’s when our minds are forced to hold opposing viewpoints at once. Out minds hate cognitive dissonance. It’s uncomfortable. We like our worldviews to be pretty and neat. When we experience cognitive dissonance, we usually pretend the more uncomfortable belief doesn’t exist or go looking for information that backs up what we already believe.
When faced with what should have been evidence that their leader was not a prophet, the followers of the doomsday cult in the study doubled down. It’s the same basic psychology that keeps QAnon followers believing in “the plan.” We don’t see the world logically, we bend the world to accommodate our beliefs.
“But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.”
-Leon Festinger, When Prophecy Fails
People who have “drunk the Kool-Aid” are not going to be changed by our outrage. They like the Kool-Aid too much. Their friends are all drinking it.
People like Steven Crowder, Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, and our former president build careers on our outrage. They’ve grown fat on it, gobbling it up and burping, asking for more.
We can’t seem to realize that we are these people’s intended audience and try to ignore them, the one thing that would diminish their power. We’re suckers who keep falling for their shock value trap.
We’ve Got To Manipulate Through Compassion
I wouldn’t believe in the power of this if I hadn’t experienced it in my classroom. The loudest, most challenging students, the ones who call you names to your face, are the humans who need to be shown compassion.
It’s all that ever works. Pleading with them to change or getting angry at them in public, in front of their audience, only gives them power. Pulling them aside and telling them that you care about them? That’s often the first step towards healing.
It’s hard to take the first step, to look at someone who is acting like an idiot in public and show them love. Obviously, this method can’t work with everyone. There are narcissists and sociopaths in the world. But the genuine people who have lost their way, and are trapped in a web of problematic beliefs that are fueled by anger? Compassion is the only thing that will get through to them.
Don’t Fuel The Fire
Shouting people down and callout culture via social media do not work. If they did, we’d have united by now, instead of arguing ourselves into the most divided period in our nation’s history. Every time we try to shout someone down, we feed division. That’s how we got here, most of a country standing in separate corners pouting like children.
We often see ourselves as crusaders for justice when we confront people on social media. What a silly illusion! Social media is just a giant advertising scheme, and turning it into a political battleground just feeds the hungry algorithms. When we confront people on social media, we create further polarization, show algorithms how to create deeper echo chambers for ourselves, and teach them how best to advertise to us to further pad the pockets of billionaires.
Our time and energy are precious, and trying to take on one anonymous idiot at a time is a waste of both.
The only thing social media confrontations will get you is online props and high-fives from people who already agree with you. That’s good for the ego, but not for the world.
Ignore the idiots you don’t personally know, and show the ones you do know how much you care. It’s not easy to reach out, but isn’t it time we started healing?