Choose to be open — please

Written on February 18th, 2016

As I left my anthropology lecture last week I heard a group of students behind me talking about how it was the worst course they’d ever taken. They said they might as well just “choose the most hippie answer on the exam” because the class was just too weird to be valuable to them.

I cringed a little.

Sure, the guest speaker we had that day was a little strange to our American eyes. He conducts fieldwork in the Western Amazon and has truly embodied characteristics of Amazonian culture.

His voice was a little funny and the things he said seemed absurd, and he did show us a picture of his monkey cousin closely followed by a video of him actually eating a cooked monkey head. It was weird, for lack of a better term — but it was also absolutely fascinating.

I understand that to someone who has grown up in the United States other cultures might be difficult to understand.

They might make you uncomfortable; hearing about spirits and ideas of transforming physically into other animals or people is something we aren’t used to in our “practical” world. But when you step back and take it at face value, it starts to make sense.

Different cultures have different ways to explain the phenomena they witness around them, and who are we to impose the context to say that their interpretations are wrong? If they have successfully survived as a group of people for years on end, we don’t have the right to interfere or judge.

But we do have an opportunity to learn.

I didn’t agree with most of what our guest speaker said. I thought about the actual science behind a lot of it and shrugged away the idea that spirits are what make you sick or what make you grow.

I didn’t believe what he told us — but I believed how valuable those ideas are in the culture to which they belong.

I opened my mind and let myself just listen. I imagined being part of the Western Amazon, not knowing the things I know here in America. I imagined all of the knowledge they possess that we wouldn’t dream of understanding here — complex herbal remedies and intricate spiritual processes and uniquely fluid family bonds.

A lot of people would call them primitive, but I think they’re far from; they’re honestly just different. And as far as I’m concerned, the world would be an awfully boring place if there was no diversity.

Because here’s the thing: you’ll never grow if you disregard everything that makes you uncomfortable.

You don’t have to believe in an idea’s truth to appreciate its importance.

You don’t have to become Amazonian to value their culture. You don’t have to start believing in spirits and transformations to still take away something valuable from a fascinating lecture.

We’re at college to learn, to broaden our horizons, to grow. We are not here to simply reinforce the beliefs we’ve held for the past eighteen years of our lives. We are going to be challenged in this next step of our education — both in terms of scholarly skill and open-mindedness. And that’s an important thing.

You can’t dismiss something just because it’s weird. When you do that, you completely lose out on the opportunity to expand your knowledge.

I left that lecture last week feeling like I’d just been told these amazing secrets — but the group of students behind me left feeling like they’d just wasted an hour of their lives.

You don’t gain anything by closing yourself off. Being open to new ideas and ways of thinking doesn’t mean you have to abandon what you believe in — it just means you have to acknowledge that you’re not the only one out there with thoughts worth hearing.

The truth is that you’re going to be exposed to cultures that seem bizarre, and you’re going to meet people who appear totally weird, and you’re going to hear things that you just can’t bring yourself to understand.

But before you bristle and distance yourself, give those new ideas a chance. Soak them in. Appreciate the fact that you’re lucky enough to experience all sorts of strange things, because it truly is a privilege.

Choose to be open. Please. Make the decision to go into every experience with a mind ready to listen and evaluate — not dismiss on sight.

You don’t have to change your own beliefs, but appreciation for the diversity around you will go a long way.