On being … a blind spot

By Ingrid Sapona

Last week I was reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. Brown’s a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She does qualitative research using something called grounded theory. I liked the book – and, for the most part – I found the ideas she put forth compelling.

Though I know that may sound like less than a stellar review – it’s really not meant to be lukewarm. You see, the reason I hesitate to gush about the book isn’t so much about the topic or Brown’s ideas. It’s got more to do with a metaphor she uses that drives me crazy. In explaining certain behaviours, she often describes humans as being “hard wired” for … [fill in the blank].  

I know, it’s a pretty common figure of speech – and one of the reasons I think people use it is that it invokes a definitive image. (For me it instantly conjures an image of a delicate – but securely soldered – circuit board.) But, it’s precisely the concreteness of the imagery that gives me pause because it seems to foreclose other explanations for a given behaviour.

Indeed, every time I hear the expression “hard wired” used in a social science context, a voice inside my head mumbles a line from Yentl: Where is it written? For those who don’t remember the movie, it’s about a young Jewish woman who wants to study religion but isn’t allowed to. And, when a bookseller tells Yentl she’s not allowed to read sacred books because they’re for men, she protests by asking: “Where is it written?” The bookseller says it doesn’t matter where it’s written, it’s the law. To that, Yentl responds: “Well, if it’s the law, it must be written somewhere. Perhaps [it’s] in here” (pointing to the book she wasn’t allowed to read). I’ve always loved that line and, though I don’t usually say it aloud, I think of it often. I guess to me it’s a kind of the inquiring mind’s way of saying, “Oh yeah, who says?”

In defense of my reaction, I think Brown’s use of the metaphor was so discordant to me because Brown takes a lot of pride in the fact that her thoughts and conclusions are not simply from her own experience. She really emphasized that her conclusions are based on her qualitative research. But, every time she used the expression, I felt she was trying too hard to convince readers of the scientific validity of her conclusions. Though I do think she’s an astute observer and that her research was far-reaching and methodical, to me, the subjective nature of the inquiry doesn’t really lend itself to such concrete conclusions.  

The first few times Brown used the “hard wired” expression I was so distracted by the mental image and Yentl’s voice in my head demanding definitive proof of the assertion, I felt like simply returning the book to the library. But, instead of quitting, each time I wrestled with my irritation and eventually let it go so I could continue reading. I’m glad I persevered because the book truly does offer lots of valuable insights into human nature in general.

Not only that, about half way through the book I realized my little struggle with her choice of metaphor was also helping me in a most unexpected way. It was helping me see – and overcome – one of my blind spots. This particular one relates to my being too literal. I first realized I’m too literal years ago when I noticed my adverse, knee-jerk reaction to use of the word “absolutely”. Like comedians, literalists tend to believe there are really only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

It took some doing, but I eventually managed to get over what I often thought of as a cavalier use of that very powerful word. Now I get that when most people say “absolutely”, what they’re really doing is trying to convey confidence, rather than certainty. I can live with that…

Blind spots are interesting. Like cars, I think we all have them. Often, however, we don’t recognize them and so they can catch us by surprise and cause us to swerve momentarily. But, once we identify them, we can learn to compensate for them.

So, besides learning about what it means to dare greatly, Brown’s book helped me realize I’m absolutely hard wired to get distracted – sometimes to the point of disbelieving someone – when I feel someone’s chosen their words, or used metaphors, carelessly. But, thanks to this realization, I guess you could say I’ve learned to adjust my mirrors and take a second look so that I can continue along the road to learning, growing, and perhaps even daring greatly.

© 2016 Ingrid Sapona


Post a Comment

<< Home