Thursday, February 11

Contempt prior to examination

“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to examination.”
                                                 —Herbert Spencer

How often do we judge something—a place, a people, artwork—without actually having encountered it?  Too often.  I had all kinds of fears about driving around in Mexico.  I was afraid of the police, the military, the border agents, other drivers, the banditos, impassable roads; I was afraid of seeing poverty, hungry people, starving animals.  These fears at times filled my imagination and left no room to imagine all the beauty that this place might offer.  

In Mexico, I have seen people living in shacks constructed of corrugated metal, sometimes concrete, with holes left open for windows, people sitting in their front yards which are mostly dirt sipping Coca-Cola, and I have seen that people here find ways to make it work wherever they are.  I have felt the hand-made dresses and blankets that are beautiful and soft.  I have bought coconut empanadas from a young boy whose mother makes them by hand every day and he walks around town selling them from a bucket.  Embarking on this journey has opened my eyes, not only about Mexico but all places.  I would love to go to Iraq: sure, it’s a war-torn country, but it is bound to be breathtakingly beautiful and so different from other places, especially anywhere in the US.  I’ve wanted to go to Sierra Leone for years, to see the scars but also to look for what hope might exist there.

Sometimes we even form positive judgment before we should: I decided at age 26 that San Francisco was the place for me.  Had I been there?  Of course not.  But I had grown up in Boston and wanted to move west.  Having already tried out San Diego and Seattle, I decided that San Francisco would have what I wanted.  Lucky for me, I did visit prior to moving, prior to accepting at a local law school, and I decided I had been wrong about the place. 

This happens to me often with books too.  I tried to read Faulkner in college, the assigned book was Absalom, Absalom, and it was so difficult that I gave up and decided Faulkner was not for me.  But does that really mean that nothing this writer ever created would appeal to me?  What if we take this further and lump an entire category of American writers together and reject the whole lot?  “Well, I struggled with Faulkner so I’m not going to read Henry James either.”  That sort of thing.  Or maybe this: Honduras seems dangerous these days, so I’m going to avoid all of Central America.  This last one was nearly true for me, I’m ashamed to admit.  Honduras is indeed having some political unrest these days, and I would have had to pass through it to find my way beyond; and in the end, for this reason and a few others, I decided to remain north of that particular border thus missing out on Nicaragua, Panama, and others that I yearn to explore. 

Maybe some of you are thinking, “That isn’t contempt prior to examination, that is just plain practical.”  And that is true, but many people find their personal limits much short of this. Fears prevent us from venturing beyond what is known and comfortable.

So, what to do about all of this?  I have had occasion in the past 24 hours to contemplate what it means to have an open mind.  One fellow traveler pointed out an important distinction: if an “open mind” seems too impossible, too static, or too demanding, how about simply striving for an “opening mind.”  It is difficult to be open, and we ought to forgive ourselves for our preconceived notions, but equally important, we must be willing to toss out these notions as soon as we see their flaws.  We must be willing to change our minds. 

It isn’t a question of being wrong in the first place, but what we expect to see or feel is so very often different from what we end up seeing and feeling.  We must give up on what we expected and accept what is.

1 comment:

non said...

Hi Abigail,
I was reading through your older entries and this one really resonated with me. I am always tempering my fear with the extreme pull of seeing places so different from my own. Of course, Honduras turned out very, very bad for me, but I don't think there was anything really specific to that country. What happened to me could happen anywhere you find extreme poverty and I still wouldn't necessarily discourage anyone from going there.

I've had a pretty long road of dealing with the fear and trauma that trip caused for me, so my adventure is taking different direction for the time being. At least the dangers in the Arctic are from the environment and wildlife, not so much from other humans. Eventually, I'll get back to where I feel I can venture out into the developing world again.

Thanks for writing this.