Facing Our Beliefs Eye to Eye: Courageous Happiness
Saturday, May 27, 2017
A decade and a half ago concerned parents from New Jersey called me to request that I see their daughter of 20, a student at a college local to my therapy practice. They were worried about her because she was now dating a man twenty-three years her senior. Most importantly, they described him as a demonic character exploiting their daughter and threatening to derail her college education.
When a high school student, their daughter Sara had met a local official who was often stationed at the school, giving student workshops and often intervening in student conflicts as well as advising the student body about resources for alcohol and drug abuse. Sara herself had chatted with Ben, but according to her there had not been so much as a hint of any potential future personal relationship while she was still in high school.
After Sara graduated, she was working in a coffee shop Ben frequented and over the next month or two they got to know each other better and began dating. Sara went off to college as planned but during her vacations and summers off, and with an occasional visit with her while she was in college, the relationship deepened. Sara’s parents found out about the relationship and demanded to speak with Ben. Ben agreed to meet with Sara’s parents, but not to stop seeing Sara; not unless Sara wanted to end their relationship. Sara’s parents consulted with their parish priest, and other close friends, and threatened to remove financial support for Sara’s college education if she refused to stop seeing Ben.
I met with Sara four or five times, and then met with her and Ben. While I could sympathize with Sara’s parents, because of the vast difference in age and experience between the couple, I also came to know Sara as a strikingly mature person who had no intention of letting her relationship stand in the way of completing her education and pursuing her career goals. Honestly, she said, she didn’t know whether her relationship with Ben would last, but she did not want to terminate it because of her parents’ irrational condemnation of Ben. She neither felt exploited nor derailed. She respected Ben and felt that she had chosen to move forward in exploring this relationship of her own accord.
Even though Sara’s parents initiated contact with me, once Sara became my client, the therapy session confidentiality belonged to her. I asked her if she would like to invite her parents into our session for a family therapy meeting. And I also invited her parents to meet with Sara, me and Ben. Sara’s parents refused all group meetings.
Sara’s parents believed Ben was evil, exploitative, and destructive. They had taken steps to see that his employment in their small hometown was terminated by accusing him of sexual harassment. They determined to stick by their story, and keeping Ben, as well as Ben and Sara, at a distance, they did not have to consider any points of view that competed with their own. In their story, evil Ben had stolen their daughter and threatened to ruin her life. As I came to understand Sara, this was her love story.
When we cut people off emotionally, we can continue to demonize them. Letting ourselves face someone “up close and personal” tends to give the “evil” person a human face. We all for the possibility of feeling empathy for that person. Perhaps we might even understand their point of view. But if we do allow ourselves to truly understand someone else’ point of view what then? It may mean softening our sense of rightness or the superiority of our perspective. It may even mean giving up our own agenda or now seeing our own story as flawed.
There are certainly circumstances where someone may feel that their own well-being depends upon “divorcing” themselves from a certain relationship—with a significant other, a friend, a parent, a child, and so forth. At the very least, this is a loss of the relationship one hoped to have. It is sad when this seems the only way to get any kind of resolution on problematic relating. But in the case of Sara’s parents, they did not want to challenge their belief about Ben’s intentions toward their daughter, nor their belief that no one should have a relationship with such a considerable difference in age. To them, the unusual was tantamount to the unthinkable.
This small example of one family crisis is exemplary of ways in which, by insulating ourselves, by closing all the curtains in our rooms, we can shore up our beliefs and keep a variety of other narratives from shaking us up. When we feel very comfortable with our beliefs, and with the connections and communities with which we bond around those beliefs, it can feel very frightening to consider other perspectives on the nature of being human, on how we might live together in this world of strangers as well as familiars.
By their very nature, beliefs are often not scientifically evidentiary. But we consider our experiences in life evidentiary. The problem is that when I hold to a certain belief, I view my experiences through the lens of that belief, filtering in experiences that buttress my belief rather than contradict or point to exceptions. This is similar, in its filtering process, to how a pregnant woman sees “so many” other pregnant women. “Wow, these days there are more than the average number of pregnant women. They’re everywhere,” she thinks. Or, you buy a new pair of brand named sneakers and see them as ever more popular than you thought. If I believe that some group of people are criminal, then every news item that is exemplary seems like more evidence to support my view, whereas other news stories that extol members of this group go unnoticed by me, or relegated to a rarity. In this way, I bolster my preconception.
Sometimes only a real crisis in my life will produce enough power to make me question a belief. As an example, though today parents would be far less taken by surprise to find their adolescent children questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, in past generations some parents had to face their fear and rejection of the non-normative in their worldviews or religious contexts. For parents and their children whose relationships survived such challenges, parents had to reflect upon and rethink their views, their priorities, and their capacities for overarching guiding principles. If a parent believed homosexuality to be “wrong,” rather than a biological, emotional, social or political opportunity, then love and kindness may have had to become overarching beliefs, as an example.
Beliefs mostly involve taking things on faith. Faith bonds us to the thoughts we call beliefs because we cannot scientifically prove them. Beliefs get linked to a sense of rightness in our minds which fosters our adherence to them. Sometimes we cling to our beliefs as to a life raft and when powerful experiences shake us to the core and cause us to question our long-held beliefs we may feel cut adrift and disoriented. Occasionally, in my therapy practice, clients question their religious faith when starting a long healing process after the untimely, or unanticipated death of a child. “How can there be a benevolent God if my child was taken?”
Many people return to their long-held beliefs, after a period of time, during which a fitting narrative develops. For some, the notion that an afterlife is better than this planetary life helps; or there is the promise of rejoining one’s loved ones. Or “God has a reason or a plan,” or “only gives you what you can handle.” Or the death transforms one’s mission in life, in honor of their late child, and to help others in a similar situation come to grips.
The more beliefs get bonded to notions of rightness, the less flexible our thinking; the less able we find ourselves to consider alternate beliefs or perspectives. This may cause exclusivity behaviors on one hand—we who share the same belief are insiders and others are outsiders—or on the other hand we may take on a missionary role, becoming zealous about persuading others to believe what we believe. This gets more apparent the more a sense of rightness turns into a sense of truth. Not only is it right to believe what I believe, but what I believe is the truth, and if you believe something different, then you believe a falsehood. As a self-appointed ‘knower’ of true beliefs, it is my mission to persuade you to the rightness and truth of my beliefs.
From rightness and truth comes ‘the good.’ We are right to believe the truth, and therefore we are good. Others who believe wrongheadedly, follow falsity and are bad. At the extreme end of this linked chain of notions—my beliefs are right, true, and good—sits extremism. Because we get inculcated into many of our beliefs from early childhood, they feel self-evident because our development has been shaped around those beliefs. They become part of who we are, and the social community with which we identify. Beliefs—those powerful ideas that inform us over a long time–function as organizing principles for our identities and for the ways in which we relate to other people. And when we feel we must do something with our extremely polarizing notions, then friction with others–who think, feel, and act according to a different set of beliefs, whether religious, or in terms of political governance, or concerning our interpersonal freedoms and obligations–can amount to battle.
It is everyone’s prerogative to believe whatever thoughts one wants to believe. However, it does not presuppose that we are entitled to use whatever means we want in order to achieve the outcome of converting others to our beliefs. The means-to-ends constitute our behaviors and actions in the world—the way we treat others within and beyond our borders.
Like Russian nesting dolls, some beliefs exist within other sets of values, and sometimes those beliefs and values create ambiguity if not extreme ambivalence. If, for example, one believes in treating all human beings with love and kindness, then that may seem antagonistic to aggressive persuasiveness or a lack of mercy. Human society is full of laws and etiquette which recognize the need to mitigate our strong emotions and even our powerful beliefs in order that the behavioral expressions of those emotions and beliefs do not threaten chaos.
Some people will willingly die to defend what they believe, and some people will die by the hand of those who believe that their beliefs are preeminent and must be perpetuated, even globalized. There are many complex situations that a country like the United States faces when contemplating whether, aside from protecting our own borders against hostile attacks, we must protect innocent people in other countries from regimes different from our own, or overthrow those regimes. It is a question of values and beliefs to define to what extent we have global responsibilities, and what agendas our interventions will support—economic, political, etc.
It is a challenging awakening to expand our circles of awareness such that we might view our own beliefs and values systems within the larger context of multiple belief systems. And to consider which human beliefs and values have the most universal power to bridge other differences. Tolerance of others who subscribe to beliefs different from our own comes with understanding that complex social, economic, cultural, and geographic structures embed those beliefs.
Camel Saddle: What are your top five beliefs? The ones that guide you in your life and relationships? How well/poorly do you deal with others who espouse religious, political or social beliefs that are very different from your own? Are you able to listen and understand? Do you try to argue others from their positions? What beliefs have you ever had to question in your own life? Have you ever pivoted from a deeply entrenched position or belief to another? And if so, in light of what information, circumstance or outcome were you so inspired?