Sam Harris interviewed Jonathan Haidt on his podcast Waking Up (Episode #137). They discussed how fragile people seem to be these days. Haidt related an event that happened at Claremont McKenna College in California. Dean Mary Spellman of the college had sent out an email addressing a Latina student’s question about enrollment with the intention of being helpful. Spellman expressed that she would work to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” The student, disregarding Spellman’s intention, got offended by her word choice, which resulted in Spellman resigning. How could Spellman’s intention to be helpful result is losing her job? 

Note: listen to the whole interview before you side with Spellman or the Latina student.

Haidt reveals three untruths that our society seems to be living by. Ridding us of these untruths can help us respect each other’s intentions, take responsibility for our own reactions, and honor our common humanity. 

  1. “Fragility” untruth: Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. We think we’re more fragile than we really are. 
      • Truth: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Turn an offense into a learning opportunity. We get offended because what someone said created stress in us. Yet, stress is where learning occurs. Others are offering us an opportunity to learn more about ourselves. Honor such experiences.
  1. “Always trust your feelings” untruth: Our feelings can get hurt easily and we trust them too quickly to determine how we feel about ourselves and events.
      • Truth: We are responsible for our response. Old teachings, like Stoicism, say it’s not what happens but how we respond to what happens that’s important. Feelings are emotions happening within us and we’re responsible for how we process events.
  1. “Black/white thinking” untruth: We think life is a battle between good and bad people. “I’m right; you’re wrong” gets us nowhere and turn others into enemies. Try that on your partner. It doesn’t work for building a relationship and it doesn’t work for building a country or world. 
      • Truth: I’m a little right and a little wrong, and so is everyone else. We live life from our own limited perspectives. Life is subtle and nuanced. Our choice isn’t “I’m right; you’re wrong.” It’s a choice between seeing others as part of our common humanity or as enemies. We choose to unite around our shared humanity rather than unite around our shared hatred for each other.

Instead of being offended by Spellman’s word choice, the Latina student could have valued the interaction as a learning opportunity to make her stronger. That would allow her to grow a thicker skin, so to speak, and develop the ability to notice how easily her feelings get hurt. The Latina student could then chose to value Spellman’s intention to be helpful, communicate why her word choice wasn’t the best, and honor their common humanity, knowing that we’re all on a learning journey. Doing that can make us strong individually and as a nation and world. 

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