We all have opinions. Some opinions are strong, others are not as strong. We may not have a readily available opinion about every possible subject, but if we ponder for a while, we’ll quickly formulate one. Coming up with an opinion is one of the easiest things we can do.
Early in life we’re discouraged from having opinions, particularly those about the effectiveness of school or vegetables. As we mature, people begin to ask for our opinions. Later in life we’re expected to have opinions — whether it be about where to spend the family vacation or about a new business strategy. At times, we’re even required to have an opinion, such as when we step into the voting booth or serve on a jury.
Sometimes we suppress our opinions. We do this to conform with our peers, to avoid alienating our friends or loved ones, or simply to go along with the overwhelming groundswell of opinion that happens to surround us at the moment. Suppressing our opinions when they matter to us however, can lead to resentment in our personal lives and being viewed as being indecisive in our work lives.
There are three basic types of opinions: preferences, judgments and beliefs. They occupy different ranges on the sliding scale of emotional investment. Preferences have the least amount of emotional investment, although there may be times when choosing broccoli over spinach may seem like a deeply philosophical issue. Beliefs carry the highest level of emotional investment, because these are opinions that we’ve convinced ourselves are true. Judgments exist in the middle of the scale, as preferences that are formulated by beliefs.
Preferences are an important part of our lives because they help us make countless choices throughout the day. Preferences help us choose toothpaste to brush our teeth, clothes to dress in, and foods to eat. It is nearly impossible to get by for more than a few minutes in modern life without choosing between two or more alternatives of something. All of these choices, as mundane as which toothpaste to buy, or as important as what job to work at or where to live, are guided by preferences.
Judgments are preferences based on beliefs. We believe certain foods are unhealthy for us and so we prefer not to eat them. We believe that certain activities promote good health, and so we prefer to perform them. We believe that certain people at work or school are the smart ones, or the productive ones, or the “in crowd,” and so we prefer to associate with them.
Beliefs are opinions on steroids. A belief, by definition, is not a truth. If we could prove our beliefs to be true, then they would be facts, not beliefs. Beliefs are very strong opinions that are, in our minds, as close to the truth as we can get without the actual burden and inconvenience of proving it.
And so we go about our lives using our preferences to make choices, associating with people based on our judgments and relying on our beliefs to make sense of it all.
The challenge of having opinions is that we have to carry them around with us all of the time. As we become more and more familiar with our opinions, and less and less likely to expend the mental energy to challenge or refine them, we tend to cling to them. We begin to close our minds to possibilities that conflict with our carefully nurtured opinions. This is especially true as we get older — mistaking our experiences as absolute truth — or when we are very young and have begun developing opinions about important matters for the first time — the idealism of adolescence.
We tend to associate with others who share our opinions — thereby forming a collective opinion and reinforcing the belief, or judgment, that our opinions are the only ones that are correct and important. We tend to avoid or distrust those who have different or opposing opinions. We tend to judge them as being a bit less intelligent or, at least, not quite as well-informed as we are.
But the reality is that other people have different preferences, judgments and beliefs. We don’t all share the same opinions. There are as many sets of opinions as there are people living on the earth. So when we venture into the world, physically or electronically, it doesn’t take long for us to meet someone with an entirely different collection of viewpoints about life.
This is when the attachments to our opinions can easily lead to discord, controversy and strife — eventually dividing us from others over what, many times, may be trivial matters. Opinions become positions, and positions need to be defended. As we become defensive, we become reactive rather than proactive. We become distrustful. Our thinking becomes dogmatic.
A closed mind causes us to erect obstacles where none are necessary. A closed mind precludes us from considering possibilities that may benefit us and those important to us. A closed mind causes us to alienate ourselves from others.
An open mind leads to a richer life. An open mind permits us to consider different points of view that may be advantageous for us. An open mind is the starting point for eliminating division. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki called this beginner’s mind,
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
Beginner’s mind helps us in our personal, social and work lives. By relinquishing our attachments to our stronger opinions (judgments and beliefs) and the hold that those opinions have on us, we open our minds. By changing our “point of view” we examine the same issue from different sides. We begin to consider new possibilities, new relationships, a new world. We eventually realize that our beliefs and judgments are really just preferences, and we divest ourselves of the emotional investment that we’ve been making in our stronger opinions. And although our preference are necessary to help us function in life, there is no reason to start a war over whether to eat broccoli or spinach. We can see the benefits of each.
Of course, this is just my opinion. Your’s may be different.