You’re likely familiar with this excerpt from Little Red Riding Hood by Brothers Grimm, or some variation of it. At this point, it’s too late for Little Red Riding Hood, who has fallen for the wolf’s trap of pretending to be her grandmother. No matter what version you’ve read, though, Little Red Riding Hood ends up saved, either before or after she is eaten.
So, what’s the lesson in this story? I think that depends on how you choose to view it. I know there’s a group of people who view this as a way to warn little girls about the dangers in the world, using the wolf as a metaphor for predators. Others see it as a lesson instructing you not to trust too easily because you never know what people are really like. Still others would advocate that it’s teaching you to trust your instincts.
But today I propose something a little different.
Let’s shift gears for a moment. I’ve mentioned in other posts how word choice is important; each word has a unique meaning and context. You can describe the same situation with different words and produce completely different results. For example, consider the following two quotes:
At first glance, both quotes may appear to have the same underlying message: don’t change or hide who you really are. However, each version conveys its point in a completely different way, each with a different attitude. One is kind and from a perspective of self-love while the other is angry and from a perspective of external hatred.
Attitude and perspective matter.
I’ll say it again, because this is important: attitude and perspective matter. They influence the entire message.
A veil of anger and hatred transforms encouragement to embrace your individuality into encouragement to employ an abrasive and dismissive attitude toward others.
A veil of anger and hatred changes messages encouraging you to be cautious and maintain personal boundaries into messages encouraging you to distrust everyone and isolate yourself.
A veil of anger and hatred misconstrues a message encouraging you to stand up for what is right to be a positive change for society into a message encouraging you bring more hatred and closed-mindedness into the world.
I saw this image posted to a friend’s Facebook feed and I immediately “liked” it because I feel strongly about not simply ignoring those things that so many of us take for granted—the truly important things in life: our basic human rights. And I whole-heartedly believe that treating people well, treating people equally, and treating all people as people fall into that category.
But something about it bothered me and I kept going back and looking at it, becoming increasingly agitated. I started really scrutinizing other quotes that created that same feeling of unease when I read them and contrasting that with those that gave me a sense of peace. Sure enough, I began to see the pattern emerge and figured out what the real issue is.
Violence solves nothing.
If you don’t believe this, look back through your history textbooks. There is little that is truly solved with violence. Or punishment. Or suddenly turning your back on someone entirely.
Let me give you an example. I have two young kids, a three-year-old and a five-year-old. It seems they are frequently engaging in some behavior that isn’t really an acceptable way to interact with another person. But when my youngest yanks a unicorn toy out of her older sister’s hands without asking, and my oldest gets upset about it, there are two different ways to react as a parent.
I can immediately punish my youngest, sending her directly into time-out because what she did wasn’t very nice.
Or I can stop and take just ten seconds to think about what was actually happening. In this example, my three-year-old, who physiologically has not developed much of an ability to control her impulses yet, got so excited she grabbed the toy from her sister. She wasn’t actually being malicious. She simply doesn’t yet understand why she can’t do what she did because she’s only three and needs to be taught.
So instead of punishing her, I talk to her. I ask her how she would feel if her sister grabbed a toy right out of her hands and ask her if that would be very nice if that happened, if she would want to play with her sister if she did that. And then I explain that it’s the same for her sister.
This concept applies to adult interactions as well. When was the last time you were attacked or socially punished for your beliefs, and as a result, you were motivated to reconsider your stance, to look at the belief through a fresh lens to question if it’s really in alignment with who you are at a fundamental level?
I can tell you right now that, for me, that’s never happened. And it likely hasn’t for you, either, because no one likes to feel attacked or judged. It triggers us to put up our defenses and practically guarantees we are not in any meaningful way going to get something out of the interaction.
Even beliefs that violate what others see as basic human decency come from somewhere. And if you truly believe in effecting change—in having an influence on someone’s beliefs—you’ll need to first understand where their beliefs originate.
Because all beliefs have an origin.
We are not born into this world pre-programmed with specific political leanings or feelings on marriage or religious preferences; this all comes from life experiences and how we are raised. So, in order to change these things, you must first be willing to figure out where they originated. And then you must be willing to demonstrate why you think it’s flawed.
You may think it isn’t your responsibility, but it is.
I’ve had this debate with others before because they don’t believe it’s their responsibility to show someone where that person’s beliefs may be flawed. They want the other person to just know it. But just like parenting my three-year-old, it doesn’t work that way. Would it be easier? Yes—hell yes. But this is one of those areas of life where it simply isn’t easy.
As a society, if we decide to shut down and immediately put up impenetrable walls between us and those who think differently, all we are going to do is continue to create a society so deeply entrenched in only what we know that all hope of understanding and reconciliation will vanish. If we want more people to be open-minded, we need to demonstrate how that’s done. If we want to change people’s minds about something we are passionate about or fundamentally believe, we have to be willing to step into their shoes for a minute to understand where the resistance lies and to be able to frame a discussion in a way they will understand.
And it all starts with our intellectual nourishment.
If we want to be open-minded, we can’t cling to epithets that promote the opposite. What you consume will absolutely influence the way you think and behave; if you devour “inspirational” quotes that are actually cultivating the deepening of the rift already existing in society, you will perpetuate that behavior.
So be wary of that daily dose of inspiration that is really just encouraging you to immediately shut people out. Be wary of that quote that seems to advocate for being yourself, but really is urging you to be abrasive toward others. And be especially wary of words that encourage automatic distrust of and animosity toward others.
For these inspirational quotes are, in fact, wolves in disguise.
Katherine Turner is the author of Finding Annie, a contemporary romantic women’s fiction novel that explores the power of love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie free!