“New” Tastes Bitter
Moving beyond the Discomfort of Change and Novelty
Change is awesome, right? We all should be flexible and be adaptable to change. That’s very nice, but do you think you always have an option to choose the kind of change you are going to have to face? Take COVID for example, many people survived it and companies too, but what about those who didn’t? And I am not referring to the disease itself here, but to the socioeconomic change that the pandemic brought with it. If we want to experience a certain change, a new job or relationship for example, then we are somewhat prepared for it. The actual challenge is to experience a change that is unpredictable.
Secondly, even if we are talking about unpredictable changes and say that we have what it takes to face it and conquer it, we are referring to the situations in the past where we have faced unpredictable changes as well. We don’t mean that we would like to lose a limb, or eyesight for that matter and see how we adapt to that change. Similarly, someone who has been through an event of death of a loved one might be in a better state to deal with a similar event in the future as compared to someone who has never experienced that before.
Thirdly, as we grow, our personality, beliefs and values keep getting solidified and fixed, thus making us more and more resistant to change. A child can adapt to a change much quicker than an old chap because of the ability of the brain to store information at that age.
Jean Piaget, in his theory of cognitive development, said that we are born with a cognitive model in our minds, in which store information in the form of units of knowledge, called schemas.
When we come across a new piece of information, we try to adapt to that new information. First thing we do is that we compare this new information with out information database, the existing schemas, to see how different this piece of information is from what we already have. Then, we can decide what to do with that information in either of the following three ways:
- If the new information is similar to some information we already have in our schema, we assimilate it into what we already know.
- If the new information does not fit in the schema that we already have, we reorganize the schema to accommodate the new information.
But why does our brain try to do this in the first place? Why is it so important to “make space” for the new information? Well that’s because our brain likes order and equilibrium. Lack of order causes discomfort and frustration. In fact, frustration by definition is the condition of not being able to find from the directory of one’s past experiences and memories about how to respond to a situation. So the brain tries to equilibrate all the information to restore order, by preferably assimilating and otherwise accommodating the new information and updating the schema as a result.
Consider your mind as a huge library, with numerous floors, having numerous cabinets and racks, with numerous shelves, filled with numerous folders containing numerous documents. A new piece of information is a new document. Now in order to restore equilibrium, your brain has to either find a place for the new document or make one. All the time your brain takes to do that, you will be frustrated.
Openness of Mind
The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Considering what we have just learned, I think we can simply define openness as the ability of a mind to equilibrate, or restore the order, on receiving a new information. The more open your mind is, the more space it has on the shelves for the new information to sit comfortably.
A narrow-minded person therefore will have trouble in deciding what to do with the new information and will therefore get more frustrated, and might stay frustrated for a long time.
A lot of people confuse being open-minded with being liberal, as liberals come of as flagbearers of freedom of choice, but I respectfully disagree. In my experience, I have found a lot of liberals getting frustrated by the conservativeness of other people. They tend to be oblivious of the fact that conservatism is also a choice, and a conservative person should also have an equal freedom of choice as a liberal. If you see a liberal forcing a conservative person to become liberal, that is not open-mindedness really. The openness of a mind is a completely different scale altogether.
Another trait that is visible in people with open minds is their questioning. Questioning, again, does not guarantee open-mindedness. For example, interrogation rooms and courts are places spilling with questions but have hardly any traces of open-mindedness. An open-minded person questions everything, but with a genuine curiosity. That is because they have a room to fill and they are interested in learning more. A narrow-minded person, on the other hand, questions with a completely different intention. They don’t have any room for new cabinets on any of the floors, or new folders on any of the shelves. Therefore, their brain keeps racing all the time to check the spaces available for new documents, and they have to think of every possible scenario before it happens, so that they are somewhat ready. They desperately want to take away the “newness” of the information, as this “newness”, they know, will cause a lot of frustration. So they prefer anxiety before receiving the new information over the possibility of frustration afterwards.
In the process of equilibration, when schemas are reorganized, information sometimes also has to be discarded to make space for the new information. Consider this — this is what the map of the world looked like in 1490s:
Imagine the trouble people must have gone through when they must have discovered the American continents for example. They must have had to make space in the map for those regions, and more.
Being an adult, one has been exposed to a lot of information in their past and therefore their understanding and their opinions are founded more strongly.
The process of learning involves breaking and forming of new neural linkages inside the brain. This breaking of neural linkage is actually a painful process and that is why it annoys people and they may be hesitant to learn.
What people know, they believe it to be true. They tend to live with the certainty of their knowledge that keeps their equilibrium I’m check. But what if what they know is false? It is not unheard of. Viking Gods, for example, as we know today, have been proven to be false. If that is possible, imagine what can happen to your beliefs and your truth when it gets challenged by another truth.
And it is hard to accept when the facts are unveiled that conflict with what you have always believed to be true and therefore always wanted to be true. In The Kite Runner , Khaled Hosseini has very immaculately portrayed the emotions of Amir as he discovers how the impression he had of his father was flawed. He had observed and valued his father as if he was not as human as he was, and was perfect. That is what eventually causes the most bitterness.
Acquiring Taste for Bitterness
It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.
What we need to understand that the knowledge of the absolute truth is overrated and hardly ever gets you anywhere. You can never really know what the absolute truth is. Whatever we know about anything is actually a story about a truth. But the story itself is hardly ever true. What matters is the degree to which its context might be true. We have to make sense of it, considering whatever facts are available to us. And the probability of us knowing the truest version of the story lies in the effort of getting to know more and more.
We will hardly ever get to know the truth about events that did not happen to us or right in front of our eyes. And there is a possibility of even those being molded into what certain communities that have power want you to believe. Take into consideration the examples of 911, Kashmir conflict, independence of Pakistan, or any of the wars fought in the past or even the ones being fought in the present. There is no way anyone knows the whole truth, not even those fighting the war. All that anyone knows is a version of it that suits them the best.
The point is, whatever you know today and whatever you find comfort in today is going to get challenged — and that is actually good! This challenge actually results in expansion of your knowledge and the openness of your mind. Experience of a challenge and the effort of conquering it improves a person’s ability to bear more and fiercer challenges in future.
So, novelty and change do taste bitter, as they should, and that is not going to change. You are fooling yourself if you claim that it is sweet, just like you might say that working on your physique is not painful. It absolutely is, and that is the indicator of growth as well. How you can be better at dealing with this bitterness is by acquiring a taste for it. You have to:
- Have confidence in your abilities instead of your knowledge. Knowledge is a static position. Think of it as a step of the staircase. The confidence should not come from staying at one step, it should come from discovering the steps of the staircase, and therefore the confidence should come from being able to do that.
- Focus on why something tastes bitter instead of what it is. Our instinct to bitter experiences is to figure our what went wrong, although what we do not realize is that the bitterness of the experience is not caused by that. It is caused by ourselves — it is our sense of taste that identifies an experience as bitter. So our focus should be on internal evaluation and on critically analyzing why did we feel the way we did. We are a complete mystery to ourselves, and contrary to what the most people think, the most we can learn about other people is by understanding ourselves better.
- Make it a habit of tasting bitter things every now and then. It is essential for acquiring this taste to keep experiencing it. So we should make sure that our life keeps putting us in situations that taste bitter and make us uncomfortable.
This is important because life itself is going to make us experience bitterness for sure! If we want to be able to tolerate that, it is absolutely essential that we acquire a taste for it.
So cheers to all that is bitter, but worth it!