We all change our minds sometimes, because we’ve learned new facts or heard new arguments or come to frame a problem differently. But the most important mind-changers aren’t nuggets you’ll note in a TED talk or even lessons you’ll learn from a book. They’re experiences that change who you are–experiences that change not only what you understand but the you that does the understanding.
Take a topic about which philosophers, poets, and lay people alike have opined for centuries: love. Looking back over the last two decades, I’m aware that my understanding of love has changed significantly. But that change feels less like an intellectual development I’ve driven than a series of existential evolutions I’ve undergone.
Twenty years ago, I didn’t know what it meant to have children, and so could only imagine a sort of love that I now consider core to my existence. I also didn’t know what it meant to have a partner who stood by me through the deepest grief and the darkest fears, simply because we had yet to face them.
Back then, I knew what it meant to fall into and out of love. I knew what it meant to get your heart broken. I even knew what it meant to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, at least for a few years. But from the perspective I have now, what I thought about love back then feels a little bit quaint, if I’m being completely honest.
I know now what it means to lose a parent, and that experience taught me a lot about love. I know now what it means to raise three children, and my experiences with you have taught me a lot about love. And I know what it means to have a partner, friend, and spouse who stuck it out for the good and the bad in all of that, even as I stuck it out with her.
The changes wrought in me by such experiences run deeper than any “change of mind” in the ordinary sense of that phrase. And it isn’t as if someone could have conveyed to me 20 years ago the understanding I now have of love simply by providing a better definition of the word.
Life has given depth and nuance not merely to the way I understand the concept but to my very capacity to understand. It has changed not only what I think but the I that does the thinking. It’s not that I have a better conceptual definition of love than I used to. It’s that I have a deeper, thicker, richer sense of how the concept weaves its way through a real human life.
In a sense, I have changed my mind. But more importantly, my mind has been changed.
It’s worth remembering this point whenever I (or others) start pontificating on some important topic. We should all ask ourselves: How long has this person had to stew on this point? How closely has she really considered it? Has she studied and/or lived it deeply, or is she really just repeating some talking head’s talking points?
Because of the way we’re wired, we’re all prone to forming opinions quickly, based on limited evidence. And we’re then prone to seeking evidence that confirms our own snap judgements, even as we jealously defend the conclusions to which we’ve jumped. We make up our minds quickly then actively try not to change them, while flattering ourselves that we know all we need to know.
Often, it’s only long, hard, deep experience that changes—and hopefully enriches—what we think, demolishing simplistic certainties and enabling something that looks a little more like wisdom. The latter isn’t just about conceptual clarity; it’s about resonating more deeply with the complex contours of reality. It’s not about knowing the talking points. More often it’s about struggling to find the words.
I love you (and I know better, now, what that means),