April 1, 2022
By Keith Sones
1977. 2001. 2009. 2012.
These are not strategic lottery numbers, street addresses or some sort of “find the next number in the series” internet math question. They will mean nothing to you, although I hope that changes as you read these next paragraphs. For me, they represent something extremely important and enlightening. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they changed my life.
These are the years when I changed my mind. The events range from a moderate shift in thinking to a wholesale turning of my mind inside out. But hey, I’m being a bit cryptic here. Allow me to share the details.
The First Time – 1977.
At the grand old age of 12 and as a budding activist, I lead a student strike. Like many kids our age, we weren’t ecstatic about being stuck in a classroom on a sunny day. We also thought with our stomachs. Once a month the school mustered up a meal of hot dogs and chocolate milk for all the students, which was a big hit for obvious reasons. As I channeled the ghost of Mahatma Gandhi, I was able to convince my entire grade 7 class to walk out, their internal fire stoked by the idea that if we were forceful enough, we might be able to secure an additional five minutes of morning recess time AND a second monthly hot dog Friday. Armed with homemade picket signs and a boatload of optimism, we marched down the hall to the school office in search of the principal, an angry mob ready to issue our demands.
As chief student spokesperson, I was thrilled to be granted an audience with our school leader. A man in his early fifties, he suggested we adjourn to his office where it was “quieter”. With a look of confidence on my face, a few of my fellow students actually cheered as the older man and the young protestor retreated behind closed doors. I settled into the guest chair as he seated himself behind the large wooden desk, a slight smile on his face.
“So Keith, what is it that you and the class want?” Quickly and eagerly I blurted out what we, or perhaps it was just me, had drawn up as our requirements. One more lunch and a longer recess, I stated defiantly.
“I can’t do anything about the length of recess” he replied calmly. “That’s set by the school district”.
“Yeah, but you’re the one in charge around here” I answered defensively, relying on my child’s view of how the world worked. “You can just change it”.
“I’m sorry Keith, I am not permitted to do that”. His solemn response must have killed whatever spark had been in my eyes, and I’m sure I looked like a scared puppy. In an instant a new reality hit me. I had basically promised my classmates we would be successful, and it was now clear that wouldn’t be the case. What would I tell them?
“I’m curious” he added. “Why did you pick another hot lunch day? Why not choose something bigger like more sports days or movie afternoons?” citing a few other student favorites.
I blinked and answered sincerely. “Some of the kids don’t have a lunch and it would help them a bit”. We lived in a relatively impoverished neighborhood, and at this point I had given up all hope of any sort of fruitful outcome, so I was surprised when he said after a few moments of thought “OK, we can do that”. I looked up at him, a mixed bag of emotions flooding me. Confusion, happiness, relief, concern. Sensing how I was feeling and being one step ahead of me, he offered “We have a bunch of students out there that will be getting restless. Would you like us to tell them together what we decided?”
I nodded a vigorous “yes please”, suddenly aware that I really didn’t want to have to tell them I’d failed on the quest for a longer morning break. We stood and he opened the door for me. After a brief announcement, some of my colleagues cheered about the hot dogs, others booed the results. It was difficult not having gotten everything we wanted, but when Friday rolled around and I saw the smiles on the faces of some less fortunate classmates that would have otherwise gone hungry, I felt pretty good.
- Opponents are not enemies, just people with a different view in a different position
- An angry crowd doesn’t necessarily mean success
- Being honest helps you and your adversary find common ground
Shift in thinking – moderate. Scale of 1-10: 4
Things Get Real – 2001.
This time, it was an actual strike. I was now on the management side as the union took to the picket line with a familiar sounding list of requests. Money. Time off. Benefits. The usual suspects. While there weren’t any real showstopper issues, the union dug their heels in just as deeply as we did and the dispute dragged on. As it did, and predictably, tensions between the two sides grew. It became noticeable for me when I had to drive a large bucket truck through a picket line and those employees I considered my friends were anything but. It took a lot of heated discussion to pass through. Rumours of skullduggery were rampant. Paid informers. Tapped phones. Let your imagination run wild. Still responsible for the operation of an electric power grid, the days were excessively long and I was feeling burned out. The rhetoric was intense, I was hopelessly tired. I despaired, feeling the strike would go on forever.
But it didn’t. After a few months cooler heads prevailed and an agreement was reached. We went back to our former lives, albeit with some relationships damage. Life went on.
- No matter how much you think the bad times will go on forever, they won’t
- There is always an answer to a problem, no matter how much you think there isn’t
Shift in thinking – enlightening. Scale of 1-10: 6
I’m Right. Right? – 2009.
Time for a provincial election. Living in British Columbia, it was the battle between the Liberal Party, in this case a right of center business friendly group, and the New Democrats who claimed to be speaking for the “common man”, the working class choice. If you delete the specific party names, this left-right battle is alive and well in most parts of the developed world.
I had voted for the same “side” in every federal, provincial and municipal election since I was of legal voting age. In reality, I was my parent’s son, voting as they did at every opportunity. They, and now I, were on the side of the angels, the choice on the ballot as clear as a new window. But for a reason I do not know to this day, I did something out of character during the run up to this particular election. I listened to both sides. Equally. It may have been that as I got older and taxes became more of a material issue, I had more to gain or lose. It might have been a series of political “scandals” that had bloodied both sides in past years. I don’t know. What I do know is I dug like a ferret into the track records of the parties. What had they said pre-election, then what did they do once they had power? How reputable was the slate of local candidates? Any serious skeletons? This became much harder than it might sound since it was immediately clear that no party had a monopoly on either truth or broken promises. So I did the best I could, treating it like a university science experiment.
And once the results, a loose term at best, were in, I had only one choice. Actually, I had two. I could have lied to myself about the results, which in the spirit of transparency I have done in the past, or I could accept them.
Now, if you’re the kind of person that alternates between candidates and parties with every election, the so called swing voter, you’re probably asking yourself “what’s the big deal?” But I’m not that person. My political identity was indelibly stamped on my brain, like the brand on a rancher’s cow. Had been forever. I had stumped for them, held placards, participated in letter writing campaigns. I vividly recall that evening in the voting booth, looking at the ballot in front of me, the traditional name and party calling out to me, “put your X here”. I could hear the echoes of my mother and father and grandparents and aunts and uncles and others, imperceptibly but powerfully forcing the pencil in my hand to select the candidate of their choice, of our family’s choice, for decades and generations.
It was viscerally painful when I picked the other guy.
In the moment and for a time after I felt like a traitor. I fully expected to be excommunicated from the family for my choice. But I had one thing in my favour. It was my choice and the investigation that exposed the serious hypocrisy in the camp of my family’s party showed me clearly the right path. And it remains my path forward.
- Critically thinking about something may awaken you from your mental slumber
- Making the unpopular choice is hard, and when it breaks from deep family convention, it’s really hard. But I need to follow my conscience.
Shift in thinking – remarkable. Scale of 1-10: 8.5
Now It’s Personal – 2012.
Like the vast majority of you, I have and always have had some pretty deeply held beliefs about where we come from, how the universe is governed, what is morally right and wrong and what happens when we leave this earth. Those views come from upbringing, community, literature and the deeply seated need to feel part of something bigger than me. Through the course of my life, I’ve referred to myself at various times as spiritual, religious, agnostic and evangelical. The label at the time depended on various events happening in my life, my level of maturity and how accurately I could reconcile what I saw happening in the world around me with the teachings I had been exposed to. But in spite of my tendency to venture along different lines of thinking, I felt pretty comfortable in my basic beliefs. If my politics were branded on my brain, my faith was tattooed on my soul.
I should have left well enough alone. Quit questioning things. Honestly, it’s easier that way. Accepting things as they are is like being wrapped in a blanket woven from a mix of familiarity and comfort. It satisfies the need to be part of something bigger, quenches the thirst for acceptance and community. I should have kept it that way.
But that’s not who I turned out to be. Once again, after exhaustive reflection, analysis and observation, I did the unthinkable.
I dumped my belief system. And launched a quest for a new one.
It was no longer possible to contrast what I saw happening in world with the historic wisdom that had been scripted in my rearing in any sort of rational way. I’m only one person in a world of billions, and far less insightful than legions of others, past and present. But I do have thoughts and an active mind. And things need to make sense to me before I’ll believe them.
Picture an epic battle between two titans. A fight to the death. Both are well armed, powerful and unstoppable, ultimate believers in their cause. The combat is intense, both feverishly committed to victory. But of course, only one can win. In fact, only one will survive. The other will die. Now picture the one dying is the one you fervently believed would win.
This is the fight that ensued in my mind first, then with my family, then my community. It was, and still is, so unbelievably painful. In fact, the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Maybe the biggest challenge I’ll ever experience on this earth. But when the dust settled, it had to happen.
- See below
Shift in thinking – tectonic. Scale of 1-10: 11
In the sequence of events described herein, the outcomes were not a surprise when one applies the logic of critical thinking which is ultimately the interrogation of your own thoughts to test their legitimacy. It’s fulfilling to go through the process and realize you’ve made the appropriate choice for you. That choice may well be different than the choice made by your friend, or neighbour, or spouse, or colleague at work. We should expect and in fact celebrate differences in opinion. Every monumental (as in very good) social and scientific discovery has been as a result of healthy debate, sometimes vigorous, often longstanding but always rewarding. We are merely a data point on the timeline of human history. We’re a work in progress. We aren’t done yet. So, what have I learned?
- Questioning why we believe something is worthwhile. Maybe you’re right, perhaps you’re wrong. But until you ask you’ll never know
- Changing your mind, mildly or substantially, is you growing as a person as long as you do it on your terms in response to a diligent course of questioning
- When someone tells you they have all the answers, that the science is settled, that their views are absolutely true…I guarantee you they are wrong.
Challenging yourself, your world view, is hard, even painful. We have all accepted certain truths about ourselves and our beliefs about the world that we consider to be indisputable. But consider just for a moment.
What if you’re wrong?
What if you’ve chosen something that history will show you is wrong? And you could have known that at the time, if you’d only asked a few questions. How would you feel?
Will I change my mind on big issues at some point?
I hope so. I’d hate to think at that (almost) 58 years old I have it all figured out.