Prisons are dreadful places. The environment, the squalor, the lack of privacy, the strict regulations and deprivations are bad enough that they might, just might, temporarily take your mind off the awful realisation that you have lost your freedom. Freedom is something we all take for granted. Until we lose it we barely think about it. Now consider freedom of speech and thought – there are countries where you are born bound and gagged politically and/or religiously.
My husband and I were talking to our daughter and trying to explain about the importance of an open mind. The importance of listening to other people’s viewpoints – even if you disagree with them. I was brought up with that old tale about the five blind men, each touching a different part of an elephant, each relating what they could feel, smell, hear. None of them was wrong in what they believed, and yet not one of them was fully cognizant of the complete nature of the beast they were investigating and so they weren’t wholly right either. We live within our worlds, within our own experiences. It is a hard concept for children to understand, that perspectives can change according to circumstance and we do not have all the answers. They see things in black and white; shades of grey are murky and unclear and are therefore ignored, and if they see black then it cannot, under any circumstances, be white.
I have a T-shirt that reads ‘forever I walk among the ignorant’. I do not discount myself among the ignorant masses. We are all ignorant. ”The more I learn the more I know…the less I understand’. Ignorance is not a failing, it can be a propeller to greater knowledge. If we appreciate that we do not know then we are able to learn, but if we close our minds and believe that we understand all there is to understand then our minds close, our hearts close, we remain ignorant. Ignorance creates fear, and fear creates hatred. We all know the destructive nature of hatred.
I like to think of myself as open-minded, open to other people’s ideas and viewpoints, but there are certain areas where this is blatantly untrue. For instance, I will not compromise when I feel my children’s well-being is at stake. In that instance I find it hard to step outside myself and see another point of view. An example: when my son was a few hours old he was unwell, not feeding and seemed to have trouble breathing. The nurses wanted to take him away. It was the middle of the night, my husband was at home with our daughter, I was alone, in a foreign country, in pain and scared. Terrified, in fact – everything seems so much bigger and more horrendous at night. I wasn’t going to let them take my child away from me, take him out of my sight, out of my care. I could barely walk yet I stood there, clutching the baby, insisting that anywhere the baby went I went too. They tried to reason with me, explained about infections, taking the baby to a cleaner environment which my presence would contaminate, about my inability to walk two steps without collapsing, the distress the baby was in, the fact that I was already dripping blood everwhere…I had an excuse for every single one, adamant that the baby and I should not be parted. They finally relented, more because the other mothers were waking up and demanding attention. Looking at the situation in hindsight it was a foolish thing to do and I wonder if, had I been in the UK, had I not been in a foreign hospital, in a country where women had an inferior status, would I have been as unyielding? Then again I wonder whether, had the situation happened here, would the nurses have been quicker to understand my position? For me that is a most defining and inexcusable point. The nurses spent all that time trying to change my mind, risking my baby’s life as much as I, when they also had the option of just giving in. I was stupid and so were they but the one to suffer was my beautiful baby.
We told my daughter there are no right answers. With the exception of 1+1=2 (and even that is suspect as no two things are identical) nothing in life is clear-cut and defined. Black is not truly black, white is not truly white, solids are full of space and space is full of debris. Nothing is perfect, everything is flawed, yet therein lies the beauty of the universe.
Her reply was that you cannot change people’s minds, you have to accept that they think and feel a certain way, they have the right to their own opinions and the right to refuse to compromise. There, in a nutshell was my lesson. In insisting she be open-minded she thought we were telling her she didn’t have the right to express and hold on to her own opinions, that she had to change her mind, that she had to listen and take on board what she heard. Perhaps we expressed ourselves badly. We do not want her to dismiss her own judgements, nor do we want her to think her own ideas are wrong. Far from it. But where we were asking her not to imprison herself into her own thoughts and ideas we forgot to give her the courage to demand to be listened to.
Freedom of speech and freedom of listening. Freedom to learn and freedom to teach. For every lesson we teach we have to be prepared to learn. Sometimes my daughter seems far wiser than I shall ever be.
BTW my son is perfectly well. My stubbornness had no lasting ill effects.