Getting there

Getting there

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Coffee and Dogma

When my daughter and I find ourselves in our local coffee shop we have a ritual. It revolves around a small flyer called "Coffee News". I suspect these publications exist in most places - little papers full of odd stories, trivia, bad jokes, and advertisements. Our ritual is that she reads me the stories, tells me the jokes, and tries to trip me up on the trivia (she is delighted when I get less than 3/5 right, and I feel vindicated when I manage to pull off a full 5/5). Today we found ourselves there while waiting for a prescription to be filled and we had time to waste.

She began with a story that stated that a recent poll showed only 20% of people believe in aliens. She was amazed by this as we've often discussed how unlikely it is that we inhabit this universe alone. I told her that I think it's the height of egotism to think we alone have a planet with life, but how very human it is to want to believe that we are special and the only ones.

This discussion rapidly morphed into how we would recognize alien life if we found it - would it have to be like life on this planet for us to realize it was life? I told her that as far as we know life plays by certain rules, but she pointed out that these rules may not be true everywhere. I told her my favourite quote from Shakespeare - "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy", and how that sums up pretty nicely how much we don't know. She commented that he was a pretty smart man, and I agreed, saying he was ahead of his era in many ways. We talked about how there are so many things we don't know, and things we can't answer as we don't even know the questions yet.

We did the trivia (3/5 this time, not bad!), and then she began with the jokes. One of the jokes asked about dogmatism and had some punch line about puppyism. I asked her if she knew what dogmatism is, and when she said no I explained it's the inability to change one's beliefs when confronted by contrary evidence (and yes, I recognize there is more to dogmatism than that, but this is a start). She realized this dovetailed nicely with our earlier discussions about aliens, and we discussed how if one starts with absolute dogmatic belief that we are alone they are unlikely to ever recognize alien life no matter how it presents itself. We discussed the dangers of dogmatism to growth and progress, and how to guard against it.

I suggested we should go check on the prescription, and suddenly a man who had been sitting at a table behind us working on a crossword puzzle turned around and said "I don't mean to eavesdrop, but I just had to say she's going to be a very smart girl after speaking to you". We both smiled and thanked him, of course - it's not the first time someone has said something like this after overhearing our coffee shop discussions. I walked away thinking that while he seemed surprised that this, to me, is what parenting is. It's not just about taking care of them when they are sick, as I have been this week, or driving them to school - it's helping them to navigate the world. It's talking about all the "isms" - dogmatism, activism, negativism, and all the rest. It's not about lecturing them solely on what you believe but allowing them to explore these concepts as they relate to them, and how they play in their own lives. While the man in the coffee shop thinks I am making her smarter he has no idea how these discussions become the wind beneath my own wings. Every time we have these discussions all I can think is how much I want her to know that there are no limits - about what you can discuss, or think about, or do. That in turn makes me question the limits I put on myself and my own life. It forces me to challenge my own dogmatism, to confront it and turn it upside down.

So, coffee and dogma. All in fifteen minutes, at your local coffee shop, thanks to a small flyer and an eleven year old girl.

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