Staying Open-Minded

Joanna Henderson, Guest Columnist

I had a big birthday over the summer and went through the annual resolution setting exercise most people do at New Year’s. I do it instead in June, my birthday month. I only make one goal and because for the last few years it’s worked well, I’ve kept the same resolution: to do something I’ve never done before. That could mean learning something difficult, taking on a tough task that takes time and maybe some practice and often patience.

Last year, because I was going to be teaching a course on Alexander Hamilton, I decided to learn how to write poems in rap. I have never really liked hip hop music because it seemed to be more about guns and drugs than anything else. But the rap in Hamilton is not about either of these, it’s about American history which I love. And I did find it was pretty difficult to do, especially if one’s intent is to be clever. I only got four poems written.

Statistics show that people over fifty don’t take chances easily, do not vote for progressive issues often, and do not set aside wisdom and experience without anxiety and this is a totally human trait. At times however, this trait stands in the way of fairness and social justice. Note that only a couple years ago, 70% of Californians under the age of fifty supported same sex marriage. But only 30% of senior citizens did the same. And dozens of other studies, not just in California, show the same results.

A researcher named Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford neurologist who is a big name in the studies being done on aging and open-mindedness, set out to understand why as we get older, we close our minds to things that deviate from the comfortable. In his research he analyzed the musical tastes of radio stations and quickly found that not a lot of seventeen year olds were listening to the Andrew Sisters and not a lot of people in nursing homes were asking to have the group “Rage Against the Machine” played over the loud speaker. And of course he found the same results with food and clothing choices.

Would sushi be a good place to experiment, he wondered? Would little pieces of raw fish served with horseradish and bits of vegetables carved to look like flowers be off-putting to the pot-roast crowd? How about the pot-roast crowd living near the amber waves of grain? You bet it was. Sapolsky found through his research that the typical non-Asian Midwestern sushi patron was younger than 28 when he or she first tried the delicacy and anyone over 39 had odds greater than 95 percent that they would never touch it. And on and on it went through experiments well beyond music and food and clothing.

One of the things we UUs are known for is being open minded. And so we realize that as time goes on for each of us, it’s probably going to be more and more difficult to embrace two of our UU principles. Open mindedness is touched on in the first principle: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” This certainly suggests being open to all kinds of people no matter how bizarre, strange, different or difficult. And it also comes up in the third principle: “acceptance of one another”. These two principles more than hint at being open-minded about people, which in turn suggests that we ought to be open- minded about the habits, customs, beliefs, values, personalities, dress codes or lack of same, which people bring with them. And this is not easy, especially as we age, which all of us are doing.

So what is my coming year’s goal? What am I going to do that I’ve never done before? I haven’t decided yet and since I have the whole year to think about it, I’ll take my time. Any good ideas are welcome.