Paradigm Shift: Seeing Things

Sometimes when we begin to see things in a certain way, we can’t “unsee” it.

This morning I stared at my curtain until my eyes saw a female figure carved in the folds of the fabric. Shamefully, I turned away, before realizing what a strange thing was happening. Because I couldn’t “unsee” the body, I felt like it actually existed. Anyway, that got me thinking about the significance of paradigm shifts and their role in our shifting world views.

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The idea behind a shift of paradigm is that the growth of knowledge in any given field is not linear, but rather progresses in leaps.

We often see this in learning plateaus as well – sometimes a student may feel that no matter how much effort they put into a subject, they are seeing very little improvement. But after a certain epiphany, the pieces connect, and they understand the subject matter in a clearer way.

We also see this in conspiracy theories and mind-bending ideas (think: The Matrix, Inception, The Pixar Theory). For example, did you know that Neil Armstrong (Neil A.), the first man to land on the moon, backwards, is Alien?

But most of all, we perceive the world in new ways when we go through periods of personal growth and by experiencing the world ourselves.

That’s the kind of new seeing I went through this morning, and although it was small and quick, it changed the way that I saw my curtain. It went from existing as a lump of cloth to a figure of a human being.

To many of us, other races, genders, or religions may seem alien, unacceptable, or less than human. But a human interaction – a passing smile, kind word, or genuine conversation – could change that. And once you see someone as human, you can’t deny them that anymore. That’s another paradigm shift.

Another way of looking at the discovery of new knowledge is this. Your body of knowledge is a house. You might discover new facts, the equivalent of fixing water leaks and changing the wallpaper. But then you might have to knock entire walls down, creating new courtyards, and adding a basement. It will seem chaotic, but eventually you will realize that this was not the house you originally started with. It will have gone from a small cottage to a palace (analogy borrowed from C.S. Lewis).

The process may be long and outright painful and frustrating, but eventually all the pieces and accumulation of facts and changes will come together to create the paradigm shift. Major shifts do not occur instantaneously, unlike my experience this morning, and requires the constant patience of building, and fixing, yet not really knowing what exactly the new paradigm will turn out to be.

And that’s the whole idea. It’s so difficult to see outside the box when you’re inside the box. It’s like hitting your head against an immovable obstacle, but as the great composer Gustav Mahler said,

“I am hitting my head against the walls, but the walls are giving way.”

My point is, while we do stumble upon these paradigm shifts by accident sometimes, that doesn’t usually happen. The ones that really do matter require constant effort that may almost seem hopeless, before becoming the idea that is impossible to imagine otherwise.

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