Faith Gong: Mushrooms, zinnias, and changing minds

The baby is beginning to have strong opinions. 

At the moment, his preferences manifest themselves most in the matter of food. For the first four months of his life, for a variety of health reasons, he subsisted upon a pre-digested infant formula called Nutramigen. If the words “pre-digested” make you shudder, let me assure you that this concoction smells like something you’d find in the dark recesses of a dairy barn.

But the baby didn’t complain. He gulped down the formula happily at every meal. His sisters held their noses and carried him at arm’s length, but he didn’t care that he smelled like he’d just crawled out from under a log. 

Then we started “solid foods,” which are really liquefied versions of actual foods like sweet potatoes, pears, and green beans. As far as the baby was concerned, these were all excellent additions to the Nutramigen. Beyond eating applesauce and carrots with a bit more gusto than asparagus, he didn’t show much preference between foods; it was all good.

Until he discovered watermelon. 

Since there are seven people around our table at every meal, dinner tends to be a chaotic affair, so I can’t recall who gave the baby his first watermelon. What I do know is that it changed everything. Once he knew that watermelon existed — that it was, to use contemporary parlance, a thing — it colored how he saw all other food options. 

It took us a few days to figure out why the baby seemed grumpy at dinner. He’s usually a laid-back, happy guy who loves his food, but suddenly he was responding to my proffered spoons of sweet potatoes and peas with pursed lips and head shakes, punctuated by occasional angry squawks. 

Finally, we realized that the common denominator was watermelon: If watermelon was visible on the table, the baby was uninterested in anything else on the menu. 

“What is this garbage?” one imagines him thinking. “I see that watermelon — hand it over!”

This is not my first rodeo, so I can chuckle at his changing food preferences. I also know that things will change dramatically again on his first birthday when – as is traditional in our family — he’ll get his first taste of chocolate cake. 

The point is: As the baby grows and develops, so will his opinions. In the span of nine short months, he has gone from being easily pleased to having specific preferences — which will continue to change over time. This is a good thing, because to grow and mature is to change; I will be concerned if my boy is still consuming only Nutramigen when he’s 14 years old.  

What’s interesting to me is that at some point we start feeling uncomfortable about changing our minds. As far as I can tell, this shift happens at adulthood. It’s as though, while our bodies are still growing, we’re allowed to have minds that change, but once our bodies will grow no taller our minds are supposed to stay put as well. 

This may be partly due to pride: Nobody likes to admit that they might have been wrong. It may also be because our culture doesn’t tend to reward opinions that alter; instead, we brand people whose minds have changed “wishy-washy,” “flip-floppers,” or “unstable.” We do this to our politicians and other public figures on a large scale, and we do it to each other in private. The internet has made things worse: Now, every word written or spoken in the public sphere is searchable, and social media encourages us to limit our ideas to a certain number of characters and dig in our heels. We lament that our society is becoming increasingly polarized and combative, but we do nothing to nurture nuance or the evolution of ideas over time. 

It took me nearly three decades to decide that I liked mushrooms; now, a grilled portobello sandwich is one of my favorite meals. For years I thought that zinnias were boring, unattractive flowers, but now they are my go-to flowers: They’re easy to grow, come in a variety of brilliant colors, last forever after they’re cut, and don’t drop pollen all over the dining room table. It might make you chuckle to know that when my husband and I were discussing our lifestyle vision before getting married, we dreamed of living in the city, traveling internationally, and having two children — tops. Now, we’ve become like a parody of everything we thought we didn’t want: tending to an acreage outside a small town with our five homeschooled offspring, and I couldn’t be happier that we changed our minds. I’m not even going to get into how my views on politics, religion, and social issues have evolved — and will, I hope, continue to evolve as long as I’m alive.

But it’s in exactly those areas of politics, religion, and social issues that we give each other the hardest time. I doubt that anybody would call me inconsistent or wishy-washy for saying, “You know, I was wrong about zinnias,” or, “It turns out that I love having children, so I don’t think I’ll stop at two.” But should I admit, “You know, my views on race in America have changed,” or “This political party is no longer aligned with my ideals,” the social media knives would be out. 

We are navigating a difficult period of history, and we’re entering into a contentious election season. It feels like there’s a lot at stake, and emotions are running particularly high. So my hope for us all is that we will give ourselves the space to think deeply, to evaluate whether the opinions we claim still reflect what we truly believe, and to allow ourselves to change our minds when necessary. It’s okay if where we land doesn’t fit in neatly with the platform of any particular political party or -ism: Consistency is a virtue when it comes to things like auto maintenance, not our inner lives, and neat labeling is important for food items but not beliefs. Let us not be a people who insist on still consuming infant formula when we’re ready for solid foods. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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