The surprising benefits of being offended

As a race, we humans have become pretty piss weak.

Seriously.

Flash back even just 50 years. The things that terrified us then were, in fact, totally terrifying.

We feared the outbreak of nuclear war that would destroy our planet and all life thereupon. We were scared of drug-addled psychopaths who lurked in dark alleyways, waiting to steal our wallets and stab us with AIDS-tinged syringes.

Wanting to avoid stuff that can kill you/wipe out your species seems pretty legit. Heck, rational fear is an evolutionary adaptation — built into the system to help us continue existing.

What doesn’t aid our survival however, are the less rational fears. Fears that are actually gripey whinges masquerading as fears. And one in particular seems to have become disturbingly omnipresent in recent years.

I refer, of course, to our newly-morbid fear of being offended.

Moving from the “OMG watch out — there’s a bear about to eat your face off!” fear phase to the “OMG watch out — someone is about to insult you!” fear phase is problematic.

It’s problematic because when we fear things, we avoid them.

And when avoid things purely because of their potential to offend us, we forfeit valuable opportunities for growth.

Ok. Granted. Actively seeking out offense isn’t an overly palatable prospect.

Not many of us love being on the receiving end of criticism barrages. Or having our animal-eating habits questioned by smug vegans. Or putting our free-spirited hippie beliefs on hold to hear out hardcore right-wingers.

Hippie dog is unimpressed by your plans to invest in coal[/caption]

But think about it.

If we only ever talk to people who think we’re perfect and agree with everything we say, we’ll never change anything. After all, why would we? We’re perfect! There’s no impetus.

Criticism and contrary views, while less lovely to listen to, offer us infinitely more value than compliments and concurrence ever could.

After all, we don’t become better by working on the things we’re already nailing. Pleasant as it may be, such a direction of effort would be a profound waste of time.

No — as distressing as it is to acknowledge their existence, it’s our shortcomings that hold the most potential for growth. And until we’re prepared to find out what they are, there’s no chance of transforming our (undiagnosed) Achilles heels into spectacular Achilles rippling abs.

In a similar way, when we consciously make the effort to listen — truly listen — to views that are contrary to our own, our consciousness has a unique opportunity to expand.

We get to challenge our own precious beliefs, and test whether they actually hold up to genuine scrutiny.

Best case scenario? We weigh up the opposing argument and decide it doesn’t stack up. Decide we’re vindicated. Feel confident in the validity of our original belief.

Worst case scenario? Our ideological sparring partner puts forward some epic arguments. We realise that perhaps our original position wasn’t so airtight after all. Renege on our original views, instead adopting a new perspective. Become more open-minded.

Oh, and maybe feel a little offended in the process.

Unfortunately, many of us are so offense-averse that we avoid potential opposition like a paper bag filled with gastro-infected vomit.

We ‘unfollow’ Facebook friends who overtly tout their controversial views. Choose not to discuss our climate change concerns with climate change deniers. Create comfortable echo chambers in which all we hear is own our beliefs reflected back to us.

Sure, seeking challenge is rarely an entirely comfortable experience. But fortunately, being offended is neither a life-threatening nor a terminal condition.

So maybe we should give ourselves some credit. Acknowledge that we’ll be ok even if we do feel a little insulted from time-to-time.

And that occasionally — just occasionally — the potential for growth may merit investing in a little discomfort.

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