Am I doomed to rigidity?
I read a terrifying article from the Pew Research Center the other day. It was about the voting tendencies of Americans based on their generational demographics. The article is great, but there was one observation from the study that really bothered me. Their research suggested that a person tends to form their “political worldview” right around the age of 18, and it doesn’t seem to change after that.
Whatever was going on in their community, in the news, or in their family during late adolescence set the frame for how they view the world for the rest of their life. This would be fine if it was a flexible frame. It would be good if the frame itself could be molded and stretched to morph with the progress of time, or if objects within the frame could be added, moved or even erased. That isn’t what seems to happen though.
The study suggests that people set their "worldview" frames and then fill them with concrete. Those beliefs within that frame harden over the next 50 years until they are so firm nothing can be said or done to shift them. The world rapidly changes around them. Technology advances, values shift, cultures adjust and demographics swing wildly. But it is too late for those people. They still hold the same view of how the world works as when they were in their early 20’s. They develop incredible cognitive rigidity and lose the ability to see things from new perspectives as the world changes around them. According to the Pew Research Center, this statistically shows itself quite clearly.
We all know someone like this. We have all sat with an old curmudgeon who has refused to change with the times. They are so out of touch with how the world currently functions, trying to get them to engage with any new perspectives is effectively impossible. We have also all said to ourselves “I hope I never end up like that”
But what if we do? What if we must? What if cognitive inflexibility is an inevitable sucking quicksand that we are all doomed to slowly sink into? That idea scares the shit out of me.
Before we dive into this new kind of anxiety let me acknowledge that some rigidity is important. We can’t just be wet noodles flopping around on every topic. Having strong opinions is necessary to living your life and making decisions. There is a balance there though. Much like the human body, we must have rigid bones partnered with soft flexible muscle. However, the statistical and empirical data suggest that as we age, our opinions seem to follow the same path as our bodies. The muscles atrophy and stiffen, and the bones become brittle.
“Yeah, she is quickly becoming a pretty bitter, rigid old lady”
As I did some soul searching on this topic I talked with some friends about their encounters with the rigidity of aging family members. It was pretty depressing. One friend narrated a conversation she had with her mother a decade or so ago. The mother had just had an interaction with her parents (my friend’s grandparents), and was frustrated at their harsh nature and how “out of touch” they were. The mother told my friend “Don’t ever let me become a bitter, rigid old lady like my Mom”. So I asked my friend about how her mother is today, 10 years after that conversation. “Yeah, she is quickly becoming a pretty bitter, rigid old lady” was the report. I had similar reports from other friends.
Is this avoidable? I feel like I need to say “YES!” Everything inside of me wants to believe there are things I can do to stay flexible. Much like physical flexibility, my current theory is that I just need to constantly practice stretching. I must exercise my mind, so it does not calcify. I feel that if I daily practice putting on new perspectives, if I encourage empathy with as much difference as I can find, I will be able to stay loose and free from the rut of entrenched certainty. If I learn a new trick every day, I can become an old dog that is capable of learning new tricks! Right?...right?
I don’t know.
What if I am just doomed? What if this stubborn dogmatism is just another symptom of aging?
I don’t know, but the greatest perk of the unknown is the opportunity for hope.
I do know elderly people that have managed to retain their cognitive flexibility. My Grandmother was a wonderful example of that. She was a very talented counselor and a very wise woman in general. She was always able to see things from multiple perspectives, and never came off as rigid. She never seemed so dedicated to her worldview that alternate ideas bounced off. So there is hope. It is not a certainty that my children will be destined to suffer a few decades of gritting their teeth through my monologues on how society would be so much better if we could just do things exactly like they were done in 2001.
I don’t know though. Maybe it was something else my Grandmother did. Maybe it was something she was gifted with that I am not. Those thoughts will not keep me from trying to retain my flexibility, but they do give me some anxiety. Anxiety that is not unreasonable. As I spend more time looking for my blind spots, I find they are far more common that I had believed. I am blind to many of my blind spots. That is a very scary feeling. The feeling of “I don’t know, what I don’t know”.
There are so many things I don’t know, but the greatest perk of the unknown is the opportunity for hope. Perhaps this dreaded rigidity really can be prevented by exercising intentionaly shifting my perspectives with regularity. That is my hope. It seems to offer the most promise, and is substantiated by the people I know that have aged flexibly. I will continue down that road for now.
I also have my companions. I have people in my life that I hope will be able to point out my gradual ossifications. As long as I commit myself to listen to their gentle concerns, I can make the adjustments I need to stay supple in the areas that must stay elastic. Relationships fill many of the necessities of life, and that corrective support is one of the most important.
It is a rewarding process, but also, let’s be real, it is exhausting. It is hard to not just let yourself relax into a rut. There are so many other things to worry about. Why not let this one go? Many days I feel the tempting whisper to just give in and let my values harden. It is easier. Life is hard, why do I need to do one more hard thing?
Because if I don’t, I will become one more hard thing, and that is the last thing this world needs.
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