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Soulful Sundays: Holy Shibboleth

shibboleth- (shĭb′ə-lĭth, -lĕth″)- noun
  1. A word or pronunciation that distinguishes people of one group or class from those of another.

  2. A word or phrase identified with a particular group or cause; a catchword.

  3. A commonplace saying or idea.



"Strong opinions, loosely held," is a mantra developed by Paul Saffo, a Stanford professor and technology forecaster. His philosophy is to let our intuition guide us to conclusions, and then seek to prove them wrong. This reduces the risk of getting paralyzed by incomplete information and reduces the tendency of getting locked into stifled positions.


A balance of assertiveness and openness keeps us in the zone of proximal development, as we are able to both act effectively and respond to feedback. All of this sounds great, but in practice, we so often get stuck in resistance, patterned behavior, and prejudice. In this way, certain shibboleths hold us back from fully reaching our potential instead of helping us to unlock it. But how can we know which is which?


The word shibboleth means "stream" in Hebrew and refers to a story in the Bible in which one group of Semites is in conflict with another. In order to distinguish friend from foe at a river crossing, soldiers were asked to say the word for stream. Those who pronounced it with a si- sound instead of a sh- sound were known as enemies and killed.


Humans can be incredibly tribal, exclusionary, and violent. Shibboleths have been used throughout history to justify horrible things: Tutsi vs. Hutu, Nazi Germany, the Apartheid, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, etc. Conversely, they have been used as rallying cries to do amazing things: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, Let My People Go, I Have a Dream, In God We Trust, etc.


The power of words to both divide and unite people is unprecedented. When we look at what actually happens in our bodies during dividing and uniting we see unique differences. Dividing things (or taking sides) during a conflict results in a concentration of activity in the limbic (emotional) region of our brains and creates a narrowing of our visual field. The same response occurs when we are actively angry, or perceiving a threat.


On the other hand, uniting is a process that involves increased activity in the prefrontal cortex as well as higher cross-hemispheric communication. It also results in an expansion of our visual field. Curiosity and creative play create the same biological response.


I have written extensively about the power that words hold. Merely writing is an act of rebellion--taking that which is unformed and forcing it to conform to rules of syntax and logic. The binding power of words can be a problem, though, when they keep us from seeing reality as it actually is. Instead, we see it as how we wish it to be. This is where Paul Saffo's mantra can help us. "Strong opinions, loosely held."


Create shibboleths that unite you with others, as well as unite you with universally virtuous archetypes. These will naturally shift as we age--student, lover, parent, teacher, sage, etc. We are all the heroes of our own unique journey. Our words are like magic spells that can either conjure conflict or create resolution. Granted, sometimes conflict is the only way toward resolution, but seeking conflict for its own sake is a sure path to misery.


Act in such a way that increases the potential for others to also improve. If you fail at that, then at least you have improved yourself in the process. Don't get locked into zero-sum or either-or thinking. Choose thoughts, words, ideas, hobbies, jobs, books, movies, and friends that inspire you to be a better version of yourself. A rising tide raises all ships. Strive to be that tide.

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