Keeping an open mind

Crash at the intersection of 10th and Union in Kennewick

I suppose election season is the perfect time to talk about keeping an open mind. I also believe it’s the perfect time to talk about staying safe on the road and not mentioning actual politics, or candidates, at all. 😉

Last Saturday, there was a horrible 4-car collision at the intersection of Union and 10th in Kennewick. I drove by soon after the crash and saw that it involved a Kennewick Police vehicle. The first thing I thought was “The officer had his lights on, went through the intersection, and someone T-boned him.” Later, this was confirmed by investigation.

Police officers use their flashing lights, and control traffic signals, less and less because it frequently results in this type of situation and there is often little reward for arriving somewhere three minutes earlier. I could use this as an opportunity to say we should stop allowing this altogether, but that doesn’t seem like a great idea. In fact, I want police officers and other emergency personnel to be able to travel quickly to where they are needed most. Rather than address this problem, I’ll address the bigger issue: we all need to work on developing an open mindset.

What does an open mindset have to do with this, you ask? First, and directly on point, we should all approach an intersection with our mind open to the idea that someone may not obey the traffic signs or signals. I do this more than average, because as I approach certain dangerous intersections, I remember the details of clients who have been injured there in the past. But I also do this because I have traveled internationally and have seen how many other countries rely much less on traffic signals and much more on their collective vigilance in maintaining their safety and seem to do better than we do with this approach.

Second, even though officers are trained to use their ability to control the traffic signal and proceed through a busy intersection with a high level of caution, their minds were apparently not open enough to the idea that oncoming cross traffic would smash into them, again relying on the likelihood that the oncoming driver was more observant than they actually were.

The reality is, it’s difficult and psychologically expensive to maintain an open mind. Lawyers are accustomed to seeing multiple sides of an argument (it’s definitely more than “both” sides), and that is only after years of brainwashing in law school and repeated practice throughout our careers. Even then, we tend to get casual and comfortable, often only flexing this muscle when we are at dinner parties, much to the chagrin of our friends and family.

Psychologists have noted that education can sometimes negatively affect our ability to see things with an open mind: we have studied it out and we have come to a certain conclusion. End of story. Unfortunately, as we are seeing more and more, this is resulting in what is called “earned dogmatism”, or “of course I’m right and you are a stupid, uneducated, twinkie-faced baboon”.  

Closing our minds to a certain degree helps us keep our sanity. After all, we can only take so much debate about butter and margarine (of course emulsified and hydrogenated seed oils are the same as churned cream!) or about whether the Seahawks are better than the 49ers, regardless of who is on the team. So, we pick a side and we stick with it. We do this in countless ways, every day, so that we can avoid being paralyzed by every decision we face.

But closing our minds too much prevents us from growing, progressing, and learning with the accrual of new information. And it also puts us at risk of serious injury.

So, here are five suggestions that I have personally used to help keep an open mind:

  1. Travel – visit places far and wide and see how other people live. You will be surprised by the places you’ll see.
  2. Seek new friends – if you haven’t found a new friend in the past year, you’re missing out! New friends are probably the best way to be exposed to new ideas.
  3. Exercise daily – it’s amazing what extra blood flow can do to keep your brain healthy and open.
  4. Meditate – just attempting to clear our mind of thoughts, truly an impossible task, will help you answer the question of why you believe what you believe, keeping you mindful of new possibilities.
  5. Read new books regularly – would it surprise you to know that some of the most influential people in our society have not read a book in the past year? Or ever? Well written books are like distillations of the spirits of the humans that have written them.

Be careful, if you do all of these things, there is a risk that your mind will be so open your brains will fall out. Just kidding. That won’t ever happen. Probably.

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