Character Defects: Narrow-mindedness

30 Vesey Street, AA's 2nd Headquarters

If open-mindedness is one of the essentials of recovery, as we read in the Big Book, then it follows that narrow-mindedness is one of its chief stumbling blocks. Yet few of us would see it that way. As it applies to us, that is. We are more than ready to identify the defect in others—to take their inventory rather than ours. How many of us have given any serious thought to the possibility we might be affected by the same ailment? How many of us have included it in the list of defects to examine in ourselves when working Steps 4 and 10?

Like pride, narrow-mindedness seems to be intrinsic to the self. It is, we might say, a built-in form of self-centeredness. Narrow-mindedness disposes me to see the world in terms of the constituent elements of my individual self, the conglomeration of factors that define me and make me who I am:  my sex, race, nationality, ethnicity, class, culture, language, religion, and politics, to name the most significant.

These color my experience and go to make up the mode through which I receive the world. They become the filters—the necessarily narrow filters—through which I view and value things. With time, I develop a natural, unconscious resistance to ideas, views, beliefs, or ways of life simply because they are new, different, or unfamiliar, or because they challenge or conflict with those to which I am already accustomed.

This makes of narrow-mindedness a cognitively or intellectually limiting defect: it restricts my ability to learn, acquire knowledge, and gain understanding. In short, it keeps me from growing.

It is for this reason that narrow-mindedness is a stumbling block to recovery. AA is about growth, and especially about spiritual growth. “When the spiritual malady is overcome,” says the Big Book, “we straighten out mentally and physically" (p. 64). Yet it is precisely the spiritual “angle” of the program to which narrow-mindedness makes us resistant.

This is true of all of us. Believer, ex-believer, unbeliever, we all come to AA with set ideas about God and religion, ideas which not infrequently clash with 12-Step spirituality. AA asks us to set those ideas aside and to open ourselves to a message we have never heard before, to an experience we have never had. The goal is a spiritual awakening that can deliver us from the obsession to drink and bring about a complete transformation in us. 

Narrow-mindedness stands in the way of this process. It affects the way we work all the Steps, but it becomes a major problem with the more obviously God Steps: Steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11. How open are we really to the idea that God can restore us to sanity, that he really cares about us, that he can remove our defects of character? How receptive are we to the proposition that we can make conscious contact with him, that he has a will for us, and that he can give us the knowledge and the power to carry it out?

These are of course questions of faith. But AA tells us that faith is a gift, and that our job is to open up and make ourselves ready to receive it. We do that, says AA, by practicing a faith that works. Such faith involves effort, and narrow-mindedness is averse to effort. It fosters and is fostered by related work-aversive defects such as apathy, complacency, self-satisfaction, and sloth, all of which conspire to keep us in a state of blissful ignorance.

Blissful because, as a product of narrow-mindedness, ignorance self-conveniently simplifies everything—whether about God, the world, or other people. It allows us to be happily insular, provincial, parochial. It makes it easy for us to deal in stereotypes and indulge biases and prejudices. We can be self-righteous, doctrinaire, dogmatic, sectarian, petty, partisan or one-sided and be totally oblivious to the fact.

Indeed, narrow-mindedness is one of the hardest defects to detect in ourselves. By its very nature, it impairs our ability to conduct an objective self-appraisal. The necessary degree of detachment, of self-distancing, is lacking. Moreover, in causing moral harm, narrow-mindedness works behind the scenes. It functions as a contributing factor in situations involving other, more glaring defects, such as resentment, impatience and intolerance. We may be able to see these particular defects and not see the larger defect abetting them—in which case they will continue to crop up.
Narrow-mindedness is the problem to which open-mindedness is the solution. As a virtue, open-mindedness requires practice. An enquiring mind and a passion for truth are necessary, but we all carry the seeds of such qualities in us. They will grow if we cultivate them. An honest admission of our fundamental ignorance, a humble recognition of how little we know, of how little we really understand about things, will also help. So will a willingness to listen, to give a fair hearing where we would rather turn a deaf ear, to withhold judgment, to reach conclusions slowly and tentatively, our minds always open to the possibility that, as “A Vision for You” tells us, more will be disclosed (Big Book, p. 164). Such practices will ensure that, when it is, we will have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

[Image: 30 Vesey Street in downtown Manhattan, second headquarters of AA and Works Publishing (1940–1944) after Bill split with Hank and moved office from Newark. For Ruth Hoch’s recollections of this move, please click on link. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]

Bill W."Mine was exactly the kind of deep-seated block we so often see today in new people who say they are atheistic or agnostic. Their will to disbelieve is so powerful that apparently they prefer a date with the undertaker to an open-minded and experimental quest for God.” – Bill W., As Bill Sees It

Big Book"Most emphatically we want to say that any alcoholic capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of our experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts.” – Big Book 

12&12"Then I woke up. I had to admit that A.A. showed results, prodigious results. I saw that my attitude regarding these had been anything but scientific. It wasn’t A.A. that had the closed mind. It was me." – 12&12 

Life Recovery Bible"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." – 1 Corinthians 2:14

Francis Bacon
"They are ill discoverers that think there is no land when they can see nothing but sea." – Francis Bacon  

Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld
"Narrow minds think nothing right which is above their heads." – François de La Rochefoucauld  

John Dryden
"A narrow mind begets obstinacy; we do not easily believe what we cannot see." – John Dryden  

Benjamin Franklin
"Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as is being unwilling to learn.” – Benjamin Franklin  

George Eliot
"It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view." – George Eliot  

Lord Acton"There are two things which cannot be attacked in front: ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They can only be shaken by the simple development of the contrary qualities. They will not bear discussion." – Lord Acton 

Herbert Spencer "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” – Herbert Spencer *  

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton"Strive, while improving your one talent, to enrich your whole capital as a man. It is in this way that you escape from the wretched narrow-mindedness which is the characteristic of every one who cultivates his specialty alone." – Edward Bulwer-Lytton  

Henry David Thoreau
"It is never too late to give up your prejudices." – Henry David Thoreau  

Arthur Forman "Not everyone thinks the way you think, knows the things you know, believes the things you believe, nor acts the way you would act. Remember this and you will go a long way in getting along with people.” – Arthur Forman   

Joseph Jastrow"The world is as large as the range of one's interests. A narrow-minded man has a narrow outlook. The walls of his world shut out the broader horizon of affairs. Prejudice can maintain walls that no invention can remove." – Joseph Jastrow  

J. E. Buckrose"You may call a person vain, and they will smile; you may call them immoral, and they may even feel flattered—but call them narrow-minded and they have done with you." – J. E. Buckrose  

George Bernard Shaw
"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." – George Bernard Shaw  

Mark Twain
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain  

Dorothy L. Sayers
"People who prefer to believe the worst of others will breed wars and religious persecutions." – Dorothy L. Sayers  

Frank Zappa
"A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open." – Frank Zappa  

Zack W. Van"A man who believes everything can be explained by science is just as ignorant as someone who believes everything can be explained by religion.” – Zack W. Van

"The less people know, the more stubbornly they know it." – Rajneesh  

Isaac Asimov
"Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in." – Isaac Asimov 

Carlton Mellick III
"Closing your mind to religion is no different than the close-mindedness that religion can cause." – Carlton Mellick III  

Scottie Waves
"Stay open-minded. Things aren’t always what they seem to be." – Scottie Waves  

Bill Nye
"Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t." – Bill Nye  

Nelson Mandela"A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” – Nelson Mandela  

Christopher Hitchens"I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness." – Christopher Hitchens

Narrow-mindedness - Anonymous
A narrow mind and a wide mouth usually go together." – Anonymous 

ODAT"If I go to meetings with a mind tightly closed, ready to criticize what I hear, it is as though I were to hold a teaspoon under Niagara Falls in an effort to get water for my thirst." – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon   

PTP123"Eager to break 'old taboos' and debunk 'religious myths,' we opened our minds to fashionable ideas and trendy rationalizations we found personally 'liberating,' and we closed our minds to God." – PTP123  

PTP123"The gradual approach of Step 2 helps us to set aside the contentious attitude and adversarial pose that is typical of so many of us and which closes down our minds." – PTP123 

* This quote is wrongly attributed to Spencer. It originates with William Paley, a Christian theologian best known for his teleological argument for the existence of God. 

For more PTP123 passages related to narrow-mindedness, see pp. 26, 29, 134–136. For PTP4 passages, see pp. 264, 293, 295. For more Big Book and12&12 passages, click on and search "open." See also entries in As Bill Sees It. On this site, see Appendix 4: Common Manifestations of Self: Character Defects – Narrow-mindednessThe Virtue of Open-Mindedness, Spiritual Awakening: The Seeing Eye, and Spiritual Awakening: The Caring Heart.

Additional Resources

  1. “Open-mindedness,” entry in The One-Minute Philosopher, by Montague Brown 
  2. "Open-mindedness," chapter by Jason Baehr in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and   R. Douglas Geivett, Editors
  3. "Open-mindedness," in The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues & Virtue Epistemology, by Jason Baehr

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