My friend Greg mentioned one of his paternal uncles in conversation, yesterday. He said, “Uncle Ted’s getting long in the tooth, so I don’t trust his opinion anymore.” I couldn’t help my grin, after hearing the seldom used idiom.
The old farmers’ expression originally referred to how a horse’s age was reckoned by examining the size and condition of the animal’s teeth. Nowadays, the phrase is used as a less than flattering way to comment about somebody’s age. Oddly, it is sometimes an euphemism when talking about declining mental acuity, orthodox discernment or rigid beliefs. Greg used “long in the tooth” in the context of his uncle’s inflexible opinions.
Greg suggested that society’s concept of young people often possessing old minds is a a misnomer. He says that young people often retain a mind that has not developed sophistication and the ability to appreciate ambiguity. Greg says that many people never outgrow the black versus white way of thinking. Isn’t a mind that can embrace robust, alternate modes of thought, a mature, older mind?
Greg mentioned a New York Times article about the aging mind. The piece debunked the idea of mental decline in healthy adults. The point was that because older folks usually know more words than younger folks, older brains have to do more work to retrieve words in conversation and writing. In other words, our opinions about mental aging are often times backwards from reality. Greg cautioned that the scientific study refered to people who do not suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
I asked if this was a reason that so many people become sticks in the mud or set in their ways. Greg said he doesn’t think that is the case. He believes whether or not a person’s mind opens up to new possibilities is a question for psychologists to answer. Greg believes that ambiguous concepts are frightening to most people. I said that I hold a similar view. I also think the jury is still out whether physiology or psychology is to blame for rigid thinking.
Why do so many people become mentally long in the tooth? Don’t most of us get caught up in habitual thinking about work, sexuality, religion, politics and so forth? Isn’t how we personally relate to our own experiences regarding these categories the way we imprison our minds? Don’t we tend to fortify our opinions by our choices of religious and political affiliation? On the other hand, isn’t the ability and willingness to question everything, the path to healthier thinking?
Greg says that we all experience stress, sadness, outside influence, and crowding. Many of us internalize these factors and subconsciously or consciously become fearful of living a full, vibrant life. Many other people inately see these same experiences as challenges that help them become stronger and more open-minded.
In other words, I said, we can retreat from the richness of living or we can embrace the huge variety of possibilities that life presents to us. These qualities might be measured on a variable scale and not by either/or logic. We might ask ourselves how open have we allowed our minds to be? When our minds are decided, twisted by past incidents, and influenced by pundits and “authority” we regress to the fixed, ideological mind of the adolescent.
I remember my early 20s as the time when I was so dogmatically liberal that my friends accused me of being doctrinaire and conservative, at heart. I finally woke up to the fact that I was a liberal in name, only. In that I had aligned myself with a particular political group, I was not actually a liberal thinker. I had not yet matured to the point of allowing liberal thought into my life. When that finally happened, I was no longer just a doctrinaire liberal.
To lock oneself into solid mindset, stunts growth and allows us to cultivate fear. When we are fearful, we’re susceptable to outside control. To reject open-mindedness is to close off the world and imprison ourselves in limitation. This is a choice that many human beings will make. Fortunately, we all possess the keys to unlock our mental prison cells. We can decide to reclaim a fresh, curious mind. The question is, “Who will decide to use the keys?”
By questioning our own interpretations of experiences and traditional interpretations of experiences, we use one of the keys that help us win our freedom. Alertness and true mindfulness is another key to discovering the nature of freedom.
Greg reminded me that there is an overarching question that all people will eventually ask themselves. “Do I really want to be free or not?”
As far as I can tell, it doesn’t look like Greg will soon become mentally long in the tooth.