In life, some of our most rewarding relationships are with those we most conflict with. In mine, one of the relationships I revisit most often is the one that I shared with my paternal grandfather. The genesis of my differences with my paternal grandparents began to develop more or less from the time I was able to speak and even then I was aware that we both came at them from unrelated perspectives; differences in philosophy and lifestyle (I was an atheist; I liked to get high) that they viewed as troubling and inherently disappointing and that I considered to be no more than failed rules substituted for rational value judgments. While I’m not so conceited as to believe that my opinions were my own at such a formative age, I do not think it’s unfair to say that I was precocious in this regard and differentiated myself quickly as soon as I began to grasp the underlying concepts. I’d also make clear that we all loved one another in our way, even if our encounters were frequently characterized by defensive exchanges masking the fact that we all took great pleasure in arguing.
Given the era, it seems somewhat trite to admit that beyond religion, the earliest examples that I recall centered around the Nixon administration and Vietnam and took the form of boilerplate, liberal/conservative views of the topic. But the defining conversation with my grandfather revolved around his remarkably unnuanced view that change in any form was inherently bad. I have made it a habit to revisit and preserve such early memories scrupulously, and have often asked myself if my recollections are biased owed to my young age at the time or my own predispositions; I’d be remiss not to admit that they were. However, neither was this the entirety of these impressions, and in this instance, I fondly recall my grandfather delivering an exposition on topics spanning the range of human experience from popular culture to politics, all of which had deteriorated in quantitative measure from what he could remember only a short time ago, when he had been a younger man.
As a result, I formed one of my earliest, core values; the desire to avoid ever adopting the attitude towards change. In my grandfather’s instance, his view was that the antithesis of this belief was a willingness to embrace any change that presented itself uncritically, on the assumption that the fact that it represented change necessarily made it good or desirable. But I had no difficulty recognizing that his opinion arose not because of the intellectually developed belief it represented but as the result of an emotional response arising from a personal discomfort with the unfamiliar and the concern that failing to integrate these new considerations might lead one to think less of him.
Of course, it would be many years before I would make any headway towards accepting that as such, my view of change is best directed introspectively; while the desire to “change others” is an intrinsic part of human nature, this is not merely an often futile endeavor but counterproductive, since the only change of any merit is invariably the product of personal choice. It cannot be accomplished through force or persuasion (at least as it applies to one’s thinking and general philosophy). You can force someone to recite the opinion you wish them to espouse; you can persuade them of it’s rightness and arrive at a product that won’t survive it’s first exposure to doubt or skepticism. But by presenting one’s self as an example, it is possible to impact those in one’s sphere of influence through exposure.
While the core of how I define this value remains the same, its requirements have been subject to its own mandated scrutiny and I have worked to integrate more recent theories of cognitive behavior as I’ve encountered them. The Boston Globe had an article this morning considering the frequently counter-intuitive result that arises when one is found to be factually wrong. In short, rather than moving us to change our opinion on acquiring more accurate information, it results in adopting an even more defensive version of the original dissonant.
While it’s self-evident that avoiding this pitfall need be accomplished through conscious introspection, both the fact that it occurs in an intellectual “blind spot” and the fact that we fail to do so in great measure indicate the overwhelming degree of difficulty it represents. Its not merely that we find learning that we’re demonstrably wrong is distasteful, but there are considerations even greater than the underlying facts of the matter that prevent us from learning when this has occurred. This is compounded by the fact that this is most likely to arise with the subjects we feel most passionately about.
Later in life, my grandfather went on to become a prolific, self-published author in service of his own unfulfilled, creative spark, grew a mustache and for a brief time, introduced himself to new people as “Wally”. While I’d have been the last to discourage these developments, I still wonder if he ever knew none of them would have made me love him any more than I already did. If there is grace in the world, I would prefer to think that he initiated them solely on their own merit.