Common sense is not common. Most people simply have walking around sense.Anonymous
How do you respond when something appears too good to be true? When a rumor confirms what you already believe, even if the facts seem a bit sketchy? When you hear a good story, even if it seems a bit dubious?
Unfortunately, we too often take the bait. Hook, line, and sinker.
In Beaverland, author Leila Philip introduces us to Scott McGill of the ecological restoration firm Ecotone, Inc. and an individual known as a “beaver whisperer.” McGill is known for surfacing and challenging myths, often by telling his clients, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
It is sage advice no matter the field.
In his world, McGill fights the myth that these ecosystem engineers negatively impact trout and trout habitat. Other misunderstandings about beavers abound, some of which are pretty fantastic. One that goes back to Aesop’s fables is that beavers, when pursued, remove their testicles — or the highly prized castor sacs — and cleverly throw them at hunters to distract their assailants. Oh my!
Myths in politics and history
The upcoming Jim Jordan Investigative Circus (whose formal name is the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government) is a great time to follow that “don’t believe everything you think (or hear)” advice.
BTW, former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance asked readers to come up with other, more imaginative names, for this subcommittee. Some of the early suggestions included:
- The Subcommittee to Obstruct Biden, silly. Or simply put: “The SOBs.”
- Bluster and Obstruction of Justice for Self-Service Subcommittee.
And my favorite:
- Select Subcommittee on The Pot Calling the Kettle Black.
Politics is one area where way too many people believe things that are totally wrong. Paul Waldman, writing in the Washington Post, listed six such myths about politics, one being the old favorite, “Government should be run like a business.” The problem is that government’s purpose is nothing like that of a business. Government isn’t designed to produce a financial return. It is supposed to help and protect all our citizens. Delivering mail to “far-flung rural addresses” will never make a profit. But we shouldn’t stop doing it.
History is another fertile field in which myths run amuck. In History Myths Exploded: How Some of History’s Biggest Ideas are Wrong, Professors Fee and Webb suggest that much of what the general public knows about the history of the emancipation of the slaves is at best incomplete and at worst wrong. Why? “Although most of us recognize the value of good history,” they explain, “we often find truthful accounts of the past, frankly, less than inspiring.”
What really excites us? A tale well told.
We need new stories … and new clichés
Not all well-told tales are positive. Nesrine Malik has written that there is a malignant thread made of myths that has been running through Anglo-American history.
“These are not myths that animate believers into a shared sense of camaraderie and direction. They are myths that divide and instill a sense of superiority over others.”
Other myths survive because the more complicated truth can make us feel uncomfortable, as considered in No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear). Three from among a number of favorites off Kate Bowler‘s list are:
|People Say||A More Complicated Truth|
|Be present.||We toggle between the past, present, and future for good reasons.|
|No regrets.||Facing the past is part of facing the future.|
|Everyone is doing their best.||The jury is still out on that.|
Compassion with expectations
So what should we do in response to myths, misinformation, and uncomfortable truths? First of all, think responsibly. Think slow, as Daniel Kahneman describes it. Try to understand your biases and motives. Then work to be a good storyteller to help define reality and combat misinformation.
In the end, the response to those stories and myths is on us. And there may be times when we accept an unprovable fact or an incomplete truth for the larger good.
Just categorize these as: “True, if not always factual.”
Robyn Ryle’s recent Substack essay references a Brené Brown podcast in which she raises this question: do you believe that most of the time people are doing the best they can?
Kate Bowler gives her take in the table above.
Different people will have different answers, but Brown’s husband responded that while unsure, “he chooses to believe it because that’s the world he wants to live in. To believe in the good intentions of others is an act of faith.”
Robyn describes a recent trip where she decided to just assume that everyone is doing the best they can. She admits that it felt better and less stressful. “I was doing the best I could in the moment. So was everyone else.”
It’s so easy to pay attention to the ways in which we don’t get along. It’s so easy to assemble a litany of the annoying and the wrong.
Robyn also began to notice “the utter benevolence and cooperation of travel.” A world in which we give everyone the benefit of the doubt is such a better world to live in.
For many of the ordinary interactions of life, I fall in with Brené Brown’s husband. And as Robyn notes, we all mess up, but can always do better. “Believing people are doing the best they can most of the time doesn’t mean you can’t hold them accountable. It doesn’t mean you can’t ask and expect them to do better, especially the people you love. It’s compassion with expectations.”
I like that “compassion with expectations” approach. At the same time, we shouldn’t sugarcoat the actions of those who willfully and maliciously undermine others.
So don’t believe everything you think … unless you decide that believing a myth truly makes the world a better, fairer, more accepting place, and makes you a better person.
More to come…
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
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