Do you ever get the feeling that something just doesn’t fit the way it should? Do you notice people who don’t behave the way that has always made sense to you? Do you feel frustrated or angry because life hasn’t yet measured up to your expectations of the arrangement? Has it ever occurred to you that the solutions to these dilemmas might be found more readily inside your own mind than in all the externalities like people and situations you have to put up with?
William Perry conducted a study of Harvard students back in the 50’s. His findings concluded that many of these students progressed through three distinct stages of cognitive styles.
The first, he named Dualistic. Dualistic thinkers see the world in dichotomies. Black or white. This or that. Right or wrong. Good or bad. They trust that there are authorities out there who know all the answers and who can be depended on to show us the way.
Once these students began to understand some of the more complex issues so abundant in mortality, they realized that not everything fits into the neatly-partitioned boxes they once perceived. They learned that there are sometimes more than a single viable position on an issue. They entered what Perry named the Multiplistic stage.
Some students got stuck in this stage, which many modern teenagers exemplify perfectly. In understanding that many valid concurrent viewpoints are possible, they then concluded that no single opinion is any better than any another. “Only I know what’s best for me!” they assert, then proceed to engage in all sorts of self-destructive behavior.
Students who successfully made the next logical leap reached the Relativistic stage. Relativists were able to weigh all the variables in any decision or debate and choose sides based on that evaluation. This was Perry’s ultimate stage of cognitive maturity, and Relativistic skills are instrumental in living a full, three dimensional life.
As Latter-day Saints and Christians, of course we realize that some things are black and white. God exists. We came to earth with a purpose. Jesus is the only way back to God’s presence. Absolute Truth is Absolute Truth.
But let’s review a few things that aren’t so absolute or black or white.
Take ice cream, for example. Few things are less cut and dry than ice cream. What’s your favorite flavor? Vanilla? Tutti Fruity? Double death by choco-berry? The thing about ice cream is that you’re supposed to like whatever you want and no one can tell you otherwise. Ice cream is also well known for the variety of flavors it offers. If you get too much of your flavor of choice, you can change your favorite at will. Ice cream embodies multiplistism.
The highway, on the other hand, is not a good place for multiplistic thinking. That explains the people swerving from one lane to another to gain half a second on the commute home, tailgating, driving on the shoulder, and speeding out of control without regard for safety or other drivers. Multiplistic thinkers are not always team players, and if they are, they’re more likely to play on the fragmented teams they choose than on the team of society at large.
Dualistic thinking is less dangerous when driving, but still creates its share of inefficiency and frustration.
One of two discussions with my last girlfriend that could be considered arguments concerned driving. On the way back from Salt Lake, we were cruising in the middle lane of I-15 while tightly-packed cars passed us on the left. “Why don’t we slide over into the right lane?” I finally ventured, thinking that then the drivers in a bigger hurry than us could slip by more easily. “Why?” she asked. “I’m going fast.”
Fast wasn’t at issue. But the highway isn’t a simple place of “fast” and “slow.” It’s a relative place filled with slow, slower, fast, faster, and idiotic at both ends of the spectrum.
“Yeah,” I continued. “But those cars all want to go faster, and if we got out of the way, they could get by easier.” My dear girlfriend then informed me that the right lane was “the merge lane,” even though the next exit was at least five miles away. “Doesn’t ‘merge’ imply that some cars are driving in it when others enter the highway?” I asked, but it was no use and I soon gave up. Dualistic thinking makes the right lane Utah Valley’s best-kept secret.
More complex and significant situations that benefit from advanced thinking skills include the application of justice and mercy in parenting, taking sides on complex, multi-faceted social, political and environmental issues, and deciding what career path to follow or who to marry.
It’s tempting to remain dualistic. It seems easier at first glance to have only two choices. Then anyone who disagrees with you (or disagrees with your authority of choice) is simply wrong, simple decisions are easier to make, and you don’t have to look out at the world and say “Oh, my, what have we gotten ourselves into?”
In reality, the over-simplification of dualism is the root of many problems. During a brief stint teaching seminary a few years back, I noticed dualism’s effect on many of my high school students. David, for example, was an “ideal” student. Happy, good to the core, cheerful, outgoing, and intelligent, he seemed to have everything going for him. Other good students looked at him and knew they weren’t the same. “Well if I’m not like David,” they reasoned, “I must be not be good.” One or the other, black or white, all or nothing, and miles from the truth.
The LDS culture benefits in many ways by the way we integrate our religion so fully with our daily lives. This is appropriate and logical. Our religion concerns more than just truth about the nature of life and eternal rewards promised to the faithful. It also promises guidance, growth and joy in the here and now.
By its very nature, however, religion is often inappropriately used as a tool against reason. Too many believers remain content with a simple, childish faith. They accept the doctrines at face value and fail to ponder them and apply their principles to the complex world around us or to the principles themselves. They believe that a child possesses greater faith than an adult because of the child’s trusting, dependent nature, and fail to recognize that the vast power of faith entails more than just acceptance. If they grow older, learn to doubt, and fail to increase their faith, then perhaps the child does have the greater faith.
How often do you repeat phrases you’ve grown accustomed to without honestly evaluating them? When you stand before the congregation and say “I would be ungrateful if I didn’t stand and publicly thank…” is it the truth? Would you honestly feel no gratitude if you happened to remain in your seat that day, or do you really mean “My gratitude compels me to thank the Lord publicly”? When you claim to know something “with every fiber of my being,” do you just mean that you’re really sure, or have you had an actual experience where the Spirit confirmed the truth of that particular principle to you in such an overwhelming manifestation that you felt it’s power in every extremity?
Those examples are trite. But what about if you gave a lesson about loving our enemies? Have you ever paused to consider who your enemies are and what it means to really love them? Can you honestly say that you can read of a suicide bomber in the Middle East or someone who opens fire on a playground full of children and that, independent of what you think the law and justice should do about these acts, you still would pray for the welfare of the murderer’s soul? Does your conversion go that deep? Are you able to reconcile the outrage we all feel with the charity we’re commanded to seek?
Historically, many believers have considered it disrespectful and blasphemous to ponder and question divine principles and dictates. Modernly, the reason for failure to think more thoroughly about God and religion is more likely because it seems inconvenient or unecessary. Without seeing the need for greater progress or with the best intentions they know, many of the faithful choose a simple faith over a well-developed conversion.
This reluctance to think beyond simple, dualistic constructs may be relatively inocuous within religion itself. At least until faced with more challenging life situations or the need to teach on a more advanced level, a person can still progress by nurturing their faith and developing other godly attributes. Transferring this attitude of automatic capitulation to other authority figures, however poses problems.
If the world were only dualistic, we could interact with it dualistically. But applying a two-dimensional mindset to a three-dimensional world is like digging a hole in your back yard with a photograph of a shovel. You just don’t get as far or as deep. Imagine playing baseball, standing out in center field, but instead of mit, you’re holding a hockey stick. What good will that do you? What will you do when a pop fly comes dropping out of the sky toward you? Have you ever traveled to a country where you don’t speak the language? In any situation, not having the right tools for the job can frustrate you and others. It can inhibit your ability to succeed.
Ignorance may seem like bliss initially, but sooner or later you’re forced to follow one of three paths. On the first path, you cling to your ignorance and disregard new information that doesn’t mesh with your old ideas. This results in stress, frustration and sometimes danger.
The second path is the rude awakening. Something happens to you that you can’t continue to ignore or deny. You find yourself unprepared to deal with the situation effectively because of your lack of preparation.
The last path is to ditch your ignorance as quickly as possible. Open your mind and use it. As long as you remember the most important things like the humility to accept Truth and the wisdom to seek the guidance of the Spirit where appropriate, there’s no need to fear learning. Jacob taught us that much: “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” (2 Nephi 9:29) Add to that the Savior’s counsel: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves,” (Matthew 10:16) and again in the Doctrine & Covenants (111:11) “Therefore, be ye as wise as serpents and yet without sin; and I will order all things for your good, as fast as ye are able to receive them. Amen.”
So how can you go about improving your thinking skills? How can you form the cognitive habits that will deepen your testimony, strengthen your faith, and make you a more courteous driver? Practice.
One exercise I used to put my college writing students through forced them to take a simple statement and break it down into smaller and smaller parts, then evaluate each piece for meaning and truth. Here’s an example. Start with any assertion, like “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Next, ask questions about different parts of the assertion. What does giving entail? Name five different attitudes you can feel when giving. What are the best things to give? What are the best things to recieve? What attitudes can you feel when receiving? How does a giver feel about a receiver and vice versa? Why is giving more blessed and what does it mean to be blessed, anyway? Are there exceptions to this rule? What are they?
Get the idea? One side benefit of developing your analytical mind is that you can use it to create more interesting talks. Take a saying and twist it into a new meaning. In one ward youth fireside just before Christmas, I began by telling them “You’ve all heard that it’s better to give than to receive, right? Well I’m here to tell you that it’s better to receive.” That got their attention! Not only was it something different, but what teenager wouldn’t love to believe that they’re doing good by receiving as much as possible? The topic I’d been asked to speak on, of course, was ‘prophets,’ and one focus I chose was to point out that when we receive Christ’s servants, we receive Him, and nothing is more important than that. Of course in receiving his servants the prophets and their words, we learn to give and it all boils down to the same thing in the end.
It’s true that developing your mind and applying it to your testimony and your world takes effort. It’s true that dealing with many issues can present real challenges to those willing to face them. But in the end, it is always the higher road that best prepares you for future challenges and opportunities to serve. It is always honest, open awareness and evaluation that will protect you best from frustration and disappointment. It is always the Truth that will make you free.
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