Sit down before fact as a little child

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

Sitting in the sun Sitting in the sun by yorkd, on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing.

"Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing." ~Thomas Henry Huxley

Back in the days when I was still working in the lab as a research chemist, I kept that quote posted in my cubicle where I would see it every day. A key part of being a good scientist is that willingness to give up one's preconceived notions in order to clearly see exactly what is happening in that moment.

It means being willing walk into each new experiment with an attitude of not knowing. It means staying open all the time. And it's not easy living in that space of uncertainty. Not only do we naturally tend to gravitate toward the comfort of being certain what we know, we also have the constant battle of letting go of our (often unconscious) assumptions that limit our ability to see the full spectrum of possibility before us.

I remember the first time I heard someone demonstrate this openness to following the facts before them while staying in a place of not knowing. It was my first biology course in college, a class I had not been looking forward to. I came to college still tightly wedded to the creationist mindset of my childhood and was certain that this biology professor was going to try to force me to accept the "heathen" theory of evolution in an attempt to destroy my faith in God.

I came to class completely defensive and ready to resist all attempts at indoctrination. Her actual lecture that day surprised me. In introducing the whole creationist/evolution controversy, she candidly admitted that there were issues with the theory of evolution. She said that the theory of evolution as it was currently understood at the time was probably not correct.

BUT she believed it was the best theory that had been developed so far to explain the data that was available to date, and it was therefore a useful framework as long as we all stayed open to the possibility that as new data was collected, a better theory was likely to be developed that fit both the existing and new data more closely.

Her openness to not knowing and her willingness to admit it as a professional in that field was revolutionary in my world.

I didn't switch from being a creationist to an evolutionist overnight, but that lecture did allow me to reduce my defensiveness enough to at least really look at the data without preconceived notions of what it had to say (or at least with reduced reliance on those preconceived notions). It took time to work through the fear that changing my mind on this issue would destroy my faith in God or cause me to be sent to hell.

In time, my willingness to follow the data wherever it led caused me to wind up with a similar stance as my professor. And I discovered that the fears that had caused me to defensively cling to my old beliefs had been lies. My faith was stronger when standing in a space of not knowing than it had been when I thought I knew all the answers.

Her lecture that day, however, has been a much bigger influence in my life than just my opinion on the theory of evolution. It's even been bigger than shaping my career as a scientist.

Over the years I've discovered that it's a good way to live life in general.

Relationships work better when I can approach the other person with a constant willingness to follow the facts of what the other person tells me (in words or in actions) about who they are and what they are about. My preconceived notions about who they are invariably get in the way and muck things up.

I function better in the systems of my life (at work, in groups, as a citizen) when I remain open to reassessing my understanding of those systems continuously as I discover new facts and as situations change.

Life works better when I approach myself and my world with as little defensiveness as possible, holding that which I know about myself and the world around me as loosely as I can so I can see what is happening in the moment with the freshest eyes.

I've discovered that every time I close down and try hide from new facts, it's because I'm listening to fear. Fear pushes me to cling to certainty, to hold onto old assumptions, to hide from new information. When I find myself shutting down, it's always time to figure out what I am scared of and address that fear.

I still keep Huxley's quote from the beginning of this post on the bulletin board in my office. I find it to be a helpful reminder to choose openness over fear in every part of life.

How do you stay open to what the world shows you about itself? How do you let go of your preconceived notions in relationships to stay open to learning new things about the people in your life?

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