Many years ago, while reading Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography, I came across this arresting line: Never go to the theatre with your head full of what you don’t like. Words Redgrave attributed to her father, actor Michael Redgrave. I was reminded of this wise counsel recently while perusing the program notes for A.I.M by Kyle Abraham’s dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow. Abraham’s troupe is noted for blending a wide range of dance styles in its repertoire, an approach that has made the company “one of the most consistently excellent troupes working today” (The New York Times).
But A.I.M’s notable achievement might never have come about. In an interview with LifeandTimes.com, Abraham recalled going to see the Joffrey Ballet at age 16. He did not go to see the ballet as a form—Abraham was a club dancer then—but to see some dances within the company’s piece Billboards because they were performed to a song cycle by pop superstar Prince. Yet that night, as they say, changed Kyle Abraham’s life. What he witnessed on that stage inspired him to step outside the narrow confines of his own experience in dance, to begin exploring and creating what he now calls his “postmodern gumbo…a hybrid of movement sensibilities inspired by a lot of postmodern, modern, contemporary, and ballet forms and even some social-dance vernaculars as well.”
But what if Abraham had gone to Billboards convinced there was nothing of value in ballet itself? If he had closed his mind, his sensibilities to everything but the Prince song cycle? How much in life do we miss because we “go to the theatre” with our minds made up? Or engage in discussions to talk but not to listen? Or simply close our eyes to what is inconvenient to see or disturbing to consider? And why do we do this? I mean, what risk is there in exploring a subject further or considering other takes on a topic? It commits us to nothing. And it just might open up our life as it did Kyle Abraham’s.
If You’re Right, Then I’m Wrong
We tend to fear challenges to our beliefs. Psychology even has a name for this inclination: belief perseverance. Picture an Inquisition dude at Galileo’s trial in the 1630s—hands over ears, vigorously shaking his head—“No,no,no! The Earth does NOT revolve around the Sun. God’s greatest creation is the center of the universe!” Or Earl Landgrebe, GOP congressman from Indiana, famously defending Nixon in August 1974—just days after the Watergate tapes came to light. “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” Landgrebe said. “I’ve got a closed mind.”
Belief perseverance (also referred to as “conceptual conservatism”) prompts us to actively reject any and all information that contradicts or outright proves our convictions false or flimsy. And if we step back for a moment, it’s easy to understand why this not-infrequently annoying trait is so powerful. After all, our beliefs can feel like the glue that holds us together as we try to make sense of a constantly changing, complex world.
But that doesn’t alter the danger refusing to reconsider our beliefs can pose to ourselves and others (think of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the movement to “Stop the Steal!” when there was no steal). Even in far less fraught circumstances, it’s still a losing strategy. A diminution of self. A blind eye that puts us at the mercy of anyone with a desire to pull the wool over it for their own ends.
At some level, we all recognize this. I mean, what adult still believes in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus? Growth is the result of challenges to our assumptions. It’s evidenced by a viewpoint that expands far beyond the narrow focus of early home life to encompass a panoramic vista of the human condition and the world in all its contradictions.
If we’re lucky, those challenges just keep on coming. If we’re wise, we embrace them. Allow them to enrich our understanding and, thus, our experiences throughout our lifetime.
We also fear losing our identity—how we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others. So we tend to seek out and embrace anything and anyone who affirms our picture of ourselves and the world around us. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. As a concept, it’s the photo-negative of belief perseverance. In everyday speak, it’s called wishful thinking. It’s like the child who, wanting to go to the picnic her parents caution may be rained out, desperately searches a gray sky for signs of sunshine.
When I was 12, I wrote passionate poems about the evils of science. A child of my times, as we all are, I could only see science as the atomic bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the Agent Orange that defoliated Vietnam—part of the “herbicidal warfare” waged there by the U.S., sickening and killing the Vietnamese and our soldiers in the process. As the napalm bombs that left huge areas of unquenchable fire in their wake. I loved the Byrd’s song “5D (Fifth Dimension)” with its line: And I saw the great blunder my teachers had made, scientific delirium madness.
I still love that song for its embrace of a loving universe, but I have learned a lot since then. Allowed a lot of facts in. Realized that my take on science in 1967 contained some truth, but ignored many, many other truths. Because along with weapons of mass destruction, science has created life-saving medicines and technologies—where would we be today without the COVID vaccines? Science created deadly herbicides like glyphosate, but science is also working to prevent further bio-diversity erosion and the poisoning of our earth, air and water. A team at MIT recently developed a portable desalination unit that removes particles and salts from ocean water to render it safe for drinking. The machine weighs just 22 pounds and requires less power to run than a cell phone charger. It can even be driven by a portable solar pane. Science has been destruction. It has also, and more often, been life and hope.
Asking questions, listening to others, testing their ideas—and yours—teaches you virtually everything is far more complex than it first appears. When I was young, I had clear-cut solutions to all of society’s many problems. Well, I’m still in the same fights I was then—the struggle for racial equality, for the rights of women and LGBTQ+ persons, for preserving the earth and all its creatures (great and small), for universal healthcare and high-quality public education. Yes, I’m still in those fights, but now I understand the solutions are more complicated than I first thought. And the questions not infrequently outnumber the answers. This can feel overwhelming at times but, as every good scientist knows, it’s the questions that drive the most significant, the most enduring solutions. Anyone can act, but to act intelligently—that’s a different, and far better, course.
I’ve Got It All Together (Not)
Admitting to ourselves and others that we don’t “have it all together”—that we harbor uncertainties, have gaps in our knowledge, or are totally clueless about the issue at hand—can make us feel very vulnerable. “I’ve got it all together” is the mantra of our age. Social media has made it possible for people to “package” their lives for public consumption: See me. I’m in my beautiful home, surrounded by my perfect family (the kids all spectacularly successful), dining at elegant places and traveling the world without a care. It’s a dream life!
In most instances, I’m willing to bet, the only solid truth in that carefully-scripted presentation is the dream part. Which is ironic because a truly secure person can admit to screw-ups and uncertainty. A truly secure person knows that no one “has it all together.” A truly secure person is open to new ideas and different takes.
Like a self-described club dancer who goes to the ballet to see how they’re dancing to Prince and comes away profoundly changed.
Kyle Abraham could have gone to Billboards with a head full of what he didn’t like. He could have refused to be influenced by anything else, fearing it would weaken his identity as a club dancer. But instead, he opened his mind to the possibilities. And that opening up made him a stronger dancer, a magnificent choreographer, one able to draw from the rich diversity of dance the world offers.
Everyone can learn from others. Even my cats, Tibby and Coosh, understood this. One of their favorite treats was butter wrappers, especially on a warmish day when a rich layer of the good stuff stuck to the wax paper. But butter wrappers can be a real challenge, as Coosh discovered. With every lick, the wrapper slid along the tiled floor, making it hard for him to get a satisfying mouthful. His brother Tibby, however, quickly developed a strategy—place one paw on the wrapper to keep it from sliding. A couple of wrappers later, I noticed Coosh had adopted Tibby’s technique.
Cooshy didn’t defend his (unsatisfying) practice. He didn’t feel it made him “less of a cat” to copy his brother. He simply grasped that Tibby’s method resulted in MORE of the good stuff. You’d have to be stupid not to adopt it.
How sad it would be if we encountered every new experience, every new idea or piece of information with our mind already made up. If we never expanded our understanding or outlook. Never grew beyond the Tooth Fairy. Because growth is life.