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The Age of U-Turns

5 minute read
Bruce Grierson

It’s easy to get the sense these days that you’ve stumbled into a party where the punch is spiked with some powerful drug that dramatically alters identity. The faces are familiar, but the words coming out of them aren’t. Something has happened to a lot of people you used to think you knew. They’ve changed into something like their own opposite.

There’s Bill Gates, who these days is spending less time earning money than giving it away–and pulling other billionaires into the deep end of global philanthropy with him. There’s historian Francis Fukuyama, leading a whole gang of disaffected fellow travelers away from neoconservatism. And in the back, humming Give Peace a Chance, the new Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, former head of the Marxist Sandinistas. The comandante has come around on open economies and free trade and is courting foreign investment as the way out for his nation’s poor.

From modest recants–Oprah Winfrey on James Frey, NBA commissioner David Stern on leather balls, Rupert Murdoch on global warming–to full-on ideological 180s, reappraisal is in the air. The view long held by social psychologists that people very rarely change their beliefs seems itself in need of revision.

To flip-flop is human. Oh, sure, it can still sometimes be a political liability, evidence of a flaky disposition or rank opportunism. But there are circumstances in which not to reverse course seems almost pathological. He’s a model of consistency, Stephen Colbert said last year of George W. Bush: “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday–no matter what happened on Tuesday.”

It’s still too early, post 9/11, to get an accurate bead on how much that day actually affected people’s lives in a concrete way. But what you can say with confidence is that those slicing jets pierced the bubble of privileged optimism that many Americans had been enjoying. It changed the perception that there was an inside detached from an outside you could voluntarily avoid.

Over the past three years, while researching a book on what I call secular epiphanies, I found people who had pulled a big U-turn in their lives. There was a slaughterhouse worker who became an animal-rights activist, a venture capitalist who quit to found a high-minded nonprofit, a death-penalty advocate who became a leading death-penalty opponent. Often the insight came in a forehead-smiting moment in the middle of the night: I’ve got it all wrong.

It looked at first like a random bunch of data points, a sprinkling of outliers beyond the curve of normal human experience. But when you stepped back, a pattern emerged. What these personal turns had in common was the apprehension that, well, we’re all connected. Everything leans on something, is propped up by something–is both dependent and depended on.

Sure, there were folks who didn’t don the love beads but buried them: ex-Greenpeacers who morphed into industry apparatchiks, utopians who left their kooky social experiments for banker’s hours. But these aren’t typically the kinds of journeys one makes suddenly–and in that sense they didn’t count as epiphanies. There are lives that one slowly acquires, like a carapace. And sometimes these are the same lives that, in one deeply private moment of dead reckoning, get shed.

“The difference between you and me,” a visiting Chinese student told University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett not long ago, “is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” The remark caught the professor off guard with its size. It prompted him to write a book, The Geography of Thought, about the differences–culturally encoded over a few hundred generations–between the Western and the Asian mind.

To Western thinking, the world is linear; you can chop it up and analyze it, and we can all work on our little part of the project independently until it’s solved. The classically Eastern mind, according to Nisbett, sees things differently: the world isn’t a length of rope but a vast, closed chain, incomprehensibly complex and ever changing. When you look at life from this second perspective, some unlikely connections reveal themselves. You’re forced to retreat from the den of libertarianism and sniff the wind, to wake up when someone in Khartoum or Mogadishu twitches in his sleep.

I realized this was what almost all the U-turns had in common: people had swung around to face East. They had stopped thinking in a line and started thinking in a circle. Morality was looking less like a set of rules and more like a story, one in which they were part of an ensemble cast, no longer the star.

Bruce Grierson is the author of U-Turn: What If You Woke Up One Morning and Realized You Were Living the Wrong Life?

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