Last Sunday my daughter invited me to breakfast. She had been telling me about the delicious pancakes she makes. They are accompanied by stewed pears, naartjies, and bananas then topped with nuts, seeds and syrup. This description was indeed enticing, so I accepted the invitation with alacrity.

The Challenge Starts!

Watching her preparing for the anticipated brunch, my son-in-law comes up with a question, “How do you explain your evolution,” he asks. Well.” I responded, “My evolution is not unlike yours. I do believe that both your ancestors and mine started on the planes of the African savannas.” “What I meant,” he explains, “How is it that you have adapted so well to the Covid pandemic? You seem to have even more of a zest for new experiences than usual!”

Now I had to think quickly. What was the source of my resilience? How is it that I have managed to capitalise on the resources offered by the Zoom Room?

So I set out to think about the habits I have developed during the more than eight decades of my time on this planet. And so I came up with the following thoughts

Learning a New Language in my 30’s

“What I want to know is how it is that you have maintained the ability to learn new skills and keep in touch with what is going on in the world during this challenging period of climate change denialism, racial unrest and adjusting to the post-covid lifestyle,” Mervin reminded me

After a few moments of reflection, I managed to articulate a few possibilities. Because of the unusual circumstances of being reared in denial of my Jewish Identity, I had always felt inadequate when my friends peppered their conversations with Hebrew words I did not understand. In addition, it was disappointing, when I attended lectures and missed the nuances of the argument because of my unfamiliarity with the colloquial Hebrew terms that were part of the discussion.

When I was in my early thirties, I was unaware of the present understanding that learning a new language in your mid-life is one of the best ways of maintaining your cognitive fluency. It is by accident that I benefited from the motivation I had for social belonging.

The mastering of Hebrew writing, reading and speaking, by attending a university course in Hebrew, had an unintended and unexpected benefit. The rewiring of the brain that must have accompanied this course of learning, has allowed me to retain a better than average ability to absorb new information at my present advanced stage in the life cycle.

Knee Surgery in 1990

“But,” continued Mervin probing me further, “that does not account for the fact that you still play tennis twice a week with all those young ladies!” “That was also unplanned” I continued. It was three decades ago that I broke my anterior cruciate ligament whilst running for a short ball on the tennis court. The surgery that followed that injury necessitated a stringent rehabilitation program requiring me to cycle in the gym for 20 minutes, three times a week. This was usually followed up with some exercise on the various machines and then a swim. Not only did this work-out keep my knee strong, but it also offered me a level of fitness enjoyed by very few people at my stage of life. Retrospectively that injury, followed by a rigorous program of exercises, allowed me to benefit from an ongoing improved level of fitness.

Running a Business

Then I told Mervin how his wife, who was still busy making the breakfast, had inadvertently offered me the opportunity to gain a headstart in developing technology skills. It was 1995, a couple of years after my divorce from her father when Daniella suggested we go into business together and purchase a Futurekids Franchise. Something I would not have thought of doing on my own, but once she suggested we invest in this new business venture, my interest was piqued.

The five years that Daniella and I ran this business together, enabled me to master basic computer skills.

I qualified for the International Microsoft Drivers Licence or ICDL. This is an internationally recognised qualification providing practical training in each of the most commonly used software tools. Together with this knowledge, I managed to master the basic navigation of the internet, giving me the tools to become an independent learner.

The motivation to make a success of the business was a great incentive to master a wide range of skills, which have resulted in my ability to do research, design teaching materials and enrich my knowledge and understanding of the hobbies I subsequently developed.

The Mediterranean Diet

Mervin was not yet satisfied. “But what about your healthy diet, he enquired.” My adoption of vegetarianism, together with following closely the Mediterranean Diet, was yet another accident. I had developed an itch some few decades ago, on my upper arm. A casual suggestion by my father was that I tried cutting out meat from my diet.

Retrospectively it was a strange suggestion from a man who had no interest in dogs. However, he had heard the dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse saying that dogs who had itchy skin were treated by cutting down the amount of meat in their food. Today when there is a pressure from environmentalists to stop eating meat, I am grateful that I do not need to make any changes in my diet to comply!

Mervin is satisfied

Having offered Mervin a rationale of my accidental adoption of healthy behaviour and habits, he seemed to be satisfied. He had inadvertently offered me an inspiring opportunity to reflect on some of the positive incidents of my life. At the same time, I believe I was able to satisfy his curiosity

A serendipitous viewing of this fascinating debate between Jonathan Sachs and Jonathan Haidt led me to pursue the evolving change in communication habits which influence our contemporary value systems.  The subject addressed by the two eloquent debaters examined the The Moral Dilemmas Created by Today’s Social Media.

Electronic Media

“Electronic media has not only linked us to many more people it has divorced verbal communication from human presence,” said Rabbi Sachs.   He went on to reference the anthropological work of Bronowski who did research with the Trobriand Islanders at the beginning of the 20th century.   His observation drew attention to the profound fact that islanders’ communication was more about bonding than the exchange of information.   An acute reminder of the change of emphasis found within today’s society often billed as the Information Age.

Tablet Magazine

Soon after watching this discussion, my inbox received further information from Tablet Magazine of Haidt’s work.   When listening to his discussion with Rabbi Sachs, I had assumed he was a moral philosopher.   However, I was soon to learn that he is not only an academic Social Psychologist but is very actively promoting the introspection of changing social norms which he considers a danger to western liberal thought.

I was fascinated to learn about the work he is doing on American University Campuses.   These are the very space which should be a bastion of free speech.  However, they very often become a place where visitors who promote unwelcome ideas are not allowed to express their views.

Asteroid Club

Have you heard of an Asteroid Club? Whether it is a friend with whom you have a clash of values, a co-worker who views life from a different perspective or a friend with a dissimilar viewpoint, membership of this club will guide you on how to go about creating a safe space for a positive discussion.   Meetings under the auspices of the Asteroid Club are conducted with specific guide lines.   The aim is to enrich one’s resources and perspectives on current controversial subjects be they politics, religion or sexual orientation.

Certain guidelines have been suggested to assist the discussion when people with varying outlooks engage in dialogue.   Members are made aware of the evolutionary predisposition of humanity to form groups of like minded people.   Contributors are made aware that the aim of the discussion is not to convert others to their side, but rather to widen their knowledge of different points of view

While this social experiment would start with a core group of 8 – 10 people who represent different viewpoints, as the group develops the numbers of participants may grow.   The discussants are encouraged to provide food and drink as a lubricant for social interactions.   So if you believe that civic discourse should be more open than it is today, you can form your own Asteroids Club!

Heterodox Academy

Another practical initiative initiated by Jonathan Haidt, is his Heterodox Academy which is a collaborative of more than 2500 professors, administrators and graduate students who are committed to promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.

It is felt that in many fields of research, important question and ideas may be overlooked because of the traditional perspective of that particular institution.   The academics who participate in the Heterodox Academy are attempting to regain the traditional open debate, which ideally should take place in any institution of higher learning.

Freedom of Expression

Many students on American university campuses complain today that they are frightened to make their voices heard, thus undermining the most essential raison d’etre of this learning establishment.   Even administrators and staff are censored regarding the views they can express.  The retention of viewpoint diversity needs to be strictly guarded at all institutions of higher learning

OpenMind

OpenMind is a psychology-based educational platform designed to depolarize campuses, companies, organizations, and communities. With this initiative, Haidt and his colleagues foster intellectual humility and mutual understanding.   At the same time, students are equipped with the essential cognitive skills to strengthen their ability to engage constructively across differences.

Concluding Thoughts

I have a strong belief that in everyday life the mutual exchange of opinions acts as an essential check on our own personal growth, ensuring we do not become entrenched in outmoded beliefs despite the changes taking place in the world around us.  We are helped to see things from the standpoint of the other, thus widening our vision.

An invitation

Do follow some of the links I have offered in this post, and let me know if you would like to be part of my forthcoming research community for Open Minded Seniors!