Old Ideas

In a tea shop the other day, which also sells feminist-leaning books on topics ranging from sex to career, I came across a postcard that read (in German but I’ve translated it to the original):

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones. – John Cage

I bought the postcard and taped it up when I got home. The last time I had the feeling of Yes, this upon reading a quote, I bought the piece of art on which it was written and hung it near my bed, where it has stayed for three apartments and two countries. Sometimes something just speaks.

But the more I think about it, the more I recognize that I need to pay very close attention to that gut reaction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about old ideas over the past several months, thinking, writing, and talking with about the way we grapple with such ideas. Some ideas from a different time remain at the forefront of how we conduct our lives today, and in this case perhaps it is unfair to think of them as “old”. Perhaps the fact that they still serve for us has given them a new life, a new understanding. So maybe these are just “ideas”.

However, there are also ideas that we discard when they no longer help us, ideas that belong in a different time and, we’ve decided, should remain there. People have diverse opinions on which ideas fall into this category, which has been the focus of recent discussion. At what point should we let an old idea go, and when are we right to cling to it?

Let’s say a traditional idea clashes with a modern view on how people should behave, or treat others, or be part of a group or society. Let’s say this old idea fits well into certain environments but sticks out uncomfortably in others. Where does this idea rightfully belong? And if it doesn’t belong anymore, where should it go?

Cage writes of fearing ideas, and it is important to acknowledge that old ideas are not bad ideas and new ideas are not good ones. There is certainly danger in blindly following new ideas, but fearing them does not mean they won’t eventuate. Rather, fear often prevents seeking to understand and this is a different danger. A new idea needs to be opened, dissected, examined before we can pass judgement. And then, once we know, we can like or dislike, accept or reject. And yes, in the case of some old ideas, we can know them well enough to fear them. But we should not fear what we do not yet know.

If we handle new ideas with caution, careful examination, and thoughtfulness, perhaps old ideas should be given the same treatment. We need not hold onto something just because it has always been this way. This, I believe, many people find threatening. And when considering certain ideas of my own, this thought makes my heart feel heavy and I can feel tears prickling in the back of my throat and behind my eyes. This contradiction is called cognitive dissonance in the language of psychology, and we are already well-acquainted.

On seeing the postcard, my gut instinct spoke in a way that, upon reflection, asks a lot of me. And I bought the postcard to remind me. I am certainly not afraid of new ideas, because I don’t know them yet. On the other hand, there are old ideas that should absolutely be feared. But, as I asked, how do we define that line? And once we reach a decision, what does that mean for the way we live our lives?

I cannot yet draw a conclusion here. But I am indeed looking for one.

Berlin, Germany – December 2021

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