Meeting Complexity with Compassion

user Darren Gold
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When I was in my early thirties, something very interesting happened to me. I changed my mind. I had been invited to attend the annual Milken Conference in Los Angeles. The event is sponsored by the Milken Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank focused on global health, education, and economic policy. The conference is held over multiple days, offering participants the opportunity to attend talks in different formats across a wide range of topics.

On one particular day at the event, I chose to attend a breakout discussion on the legalization of drugs. This wasn’t a topic that particularly interested me, and to be honest, I was pretty closed-minded about the idea. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a period of time that marked the launch of the war on drugs. As a teenager, I was bombarded with messages warning of the dangers of drug usage: the “this is your brain on drugs” public service announcement featuring an egg being cooked in a frying pan; pleas from First Lady Nancy Reagan to “just say no” to drugs; LAPD cruisers that displayed bumper stickers promoting DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Organization). The crusade against drugs arguably reached its pinnacle in 1988 when Congress authorized a new federal department led by the new position of drug czar. Notably, the statute expressly prohibited the use of federal funds to study the legalization of drugs. For many at the turn of the twenty-first century, to even entertain the notion of legalizing drugs felt immoral and dangerous.

To say that I came into this session with a fixed point of view was an understatement. Nevertheless, over the course of the hour, something magical happened. It was a small session, attended by only about twenty people. The speaker was a deep subject matter expert. He dispassionately presented the findings of numerous comparative studies that showed the absence of any negative effects from legalizing drugs in a handful of Western European countries. In some cases, in fact, the research showed that drug usage declined following legalization. I don’t know whether it was this particular expert, the overwhelming weight of the research findings, or my own emerging intellectual maturity. Whatever it was, my mind was blown wide open that day. I came in self-righteous and certain about an issue I hadn’t really spent time examining deeply. I left with a deep appreciation of the nuances and subtleties of an inherently complex issue.

To be sure, I had had moments before in college and the early part of my career where I learned something new that changed my mind. But there was something about this experience that was different. Looking back, I believe the event marked the entry into a new stage of moral and cognitive development that allowed me to see myself, others, and the world with more complexity and, perhaps more importantly, more compassion. In the years that followed, I have noticed my thinking on a wide range of subjects mature. For example, I have moved from an almost fanatical, unquestioning support of the free market to a place where I can appreciate both the virtues of capitalism and its inherent limitations. I have evolved from a strict constructionist view of the Constitution (so ardent was I in law school that a professor playfully named a principle of constitutional interpretation after me) to a point of view that both respects the original intent of our founders and believes there is and must be room for our constitution to evolve to meet the changing needs of our country.

Why do I mention all of this? Two words – complexity and compassion. We are more polarized than ever today because these two critical ingredients are in such short supply. By complexity, I mean the developmental maturity to suspend certainty and self-righteousness in order to see the subtleties of an issue and appreciate the other point of view. By compassion, I mean the ability to empathize with the person holding the point of view that you disagree with, as reprehensible or wrong as that point of view may seem to you. My experience in that session gave me an early taste of both ingredients. It allowed me to see the many shades of grey of an issue that I had been perceiving as black and white. It was as if I had put on a magical set of glasses and was able to see the world totally differently. And because I had had this experience, I could now see the possibility of wisdom from an opposite point of view. In fact, I could no longer ignore the fact that virtually every alternative view has within it some seed of wisdom and truth. I now had the capacity to treat with compassion those who, like me, saw the world through the black and white lens of certainty.

Complexity and compassion are the essential ingredients of a healthy, well-functioning society. Where have you been so certain about something only to fundamentally evolve your point of view? And how can you leverage that experience to approach the issues of our time with greater nuance and empathy? We cannot expect a better world unless we are first willing to change how we currently see it.

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