The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on March 10, 2011.

Fasten your seatbelt, because I’m getting ready to obliterate one of your longest-held, most comfortable beliefs about life on this planet. And I’m going to do it with one word: zebra.

I was reading the “Ask Marilyn” column in the Star Tribune’s Sunday magazine a week or so ago, and someone had written in to ask why zebras have never been domesticated for riding or for use as pack animals. The answer was that zebras are mean, and would be nearly impossible to train, let alone domesticate – which would take several generations to accomplish. Marilyn added that of the animals we are likely to see in zoos or in wildlife parks, zebras are among the most dangerous. They have a vicious bite, and they aim to kill.

Zebras. Who knew?

If you’re like me, when you hear the word “zebra,” the first thing you do is get a mental image of those odd and interesting black and white stripes. And in picturing a zebra, you may visualize it as a line drawing – the kind you see on alphabet charts. After all, the zebra’s two main claims to fame are those stripes and the fact that the zebra – like an apple for “A” and an elephant for “E” – is such a perfect and easily recognizable example of the letter “Z” for toddlers who are just starting to learn their ABC’s.

Although I’ve never had the occasion or desire to get up close and personal with a zebra in real life, I’ve always thought of them as rather gentle and harmless creatures, and I’m surprised now to discover how wrong I was. Which begs another question. Well, two, actually, but I’ll dismiss the one about why in the world someone was curious enough about domesticating zebras to write in to a newspaper magazine columnist and ask about it.

The more relevant question is: What other assumptions or judgments have I made that are based solely on surface observations or limited information? And how many of them are totally wrong?

I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable and open-minded. And I’m pretty confident that the mental tools I use in forming my decisions and beliefs are in good working order. This serves me well in my day-to-day life, and with people and things that are important to me and close to me. But what about those that are a little farther away, or that I don’t come in regular contact with? Not just zebras, but people, places, and events. The ones I know – or know about – only from limited information, or from observations made by a biased source, or in the context of a specific occurrence.

It seems today that everyone has an agenda, or is trying to sell us something. So it can be difficult to get objective information or an unbiased opinion. And unlike zebras, life isn’t all black and white. There are lots of shades, nuances, and side stories that can color the information we use in forming our attitudes and beliefs. And lots of information that is just plain wrong.

I’m going to try paying closer attention from now on. To the things I learn, and – even more important – to the things I already know. Or think I do. When I’m making a decision or forming an opinion, I’ll try to consciously consider where my information is coming from, how reliable it is, and whether it’s based on facts, feelings, or something else – like alphabet charts.

It won’t be easy to retrain myself to actively consider what information I’m using as I form my attitudes, beliefs and decisions. But I’m sure those attitudes, beliefs and decisions will be stronger and more valid because of it.

Feel free to join me. And if you have trouble remembering the concept or why you’re doing it, you can do the same thing I intend to do. Just think of a zebra.

© Betty Liedtke, 2011