January 24, 2009

The Power of Mindset

I’m amazed at how two people can go through the same experience and interpret it in radically different ways. Take, for example, my life at home. I happen to be a pretty romantic guy, but Lori refuses to see me in that light. I can’t count the number of cozy evenings that I’ve planned for us—evenings complete with bowls of popcorn, mugs of root beer, and carefully selected sporting events on television. I invite Lori to cuddle beside me, so we can revel together in slam dunks and home runs, but she doesn’t appreciate my efforts.

Early in our marriage, she used to ask me an unsettling question. It was: “Do you love me?” And because I’m a pretty romantic guy, I would answer with something sweet and sensitive, something like: “I married you, didn’t I?” (which to me only served as a reminder of that day when we exchanged vows). Yet Lori seemed somehow disappointed and compelled to follow up with a second unsettling question: “How much do you love me?”

Now, let me ask you: How is love measured? By the pound? The cubic foot? The mile? No math text I ever studied could answer that. The fact is I disappointed Lori with one response after another, until one day I raised my thumb and forefinger and told her, “I love you this much.”

You should have seen the explosion. All Lori seemed to see by my gesture was a few inches of warmth out of a potential sea of heart-felt emotion. That’s when I reminded her of something she’d learned in high school but apparently forgotten. I asked her, “How many points are there between zero and one?” After a split second of thought, she recalled the paradox of decreasing halves.

It goes something like this: If you stand in front of a wall and take a step one half the distance to it and continue to take steps one half of each subsequent distance, you never reach the wall! The first step takes you halfway there. The next step, an additional quarter. The next, an eighth and so on, but no matter how many steps you take, there will always be a distance midway between you and the wall. So in my romantic way, I showed Lori that infinity lie hidden within the inches.

We turned this rediscovered knowledge into a game of sorts. Lori would ask, “Do you love me?” and I would answer, “I’m still here, aren’t I?” She would follow up with, “How much do you love me?” and I would hold up my thumb and forefinger. Finally Lori would smile and say—as if announcing to the world—“You love me infinitely, don’t you?” and I would smile back.

Boy, were we idiots.

So here’s the point: The way we perceive our world contributes to the way we engage it and this extends even into matters of faith. This mindset determines, in part, our successes and failures and the degree to which we can be deceived. Clearly, having the wrong frame of reference can lead us to make mistakes. What some people don’t realize is how easily we can be deceived. Let me give you an example.

The 11th president of the United States was a man whose last name rhymed with “folk.” Do you remember him? The man, of course, was James K. Polk. We don’t talk much about him, but he did much to contribute to the nation’s early notions of manifest destiny and his name was spelled: P-O-L-K. Now, what I’d like you to do is spell his name aloud three times, after which I’ll ask a question that you’re to answer as quickly and correctly as possible. Ready?

P-O-L-K. P-O-L-K. P-O-L-K.

What’s the white portion of an egg called?

If you’re like most people, you answered, “yolk.” If so, look at the question again. I asked: What’s the WHITE portion of an egg called? Most of us eat eggs that are nearly all white and you could have given the definitive answer: the egg white. But you might have also said the shell, or that membrane-thingy, or (if you’re familiar with egg anatomy) the blastodisc. Most people, however, give the one incorrect answer available to them. Why is that?

Obviously it’s due to the mindset of the people asked. This is one reason why I believe it’s important to embrace uncertainty. A mindset that assumes our articles of faith to be nothing less than immutable will lead to a lack of progress when new information contradicts the belief. On the other hand, growth is possible to a people who believe God’s directives are geared to their level of enlightenment.

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