Independent Thinking: It’s like Pilates for your brain.
“It’s not our differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do.”
-Margaret J. Wheatley*
Like I said in my previous post (though you don’t need to read it to understand this one), the way I think about the world was sparked by my participation in The Appalachian Semester program (a semester long domestic study program for college students at a small private college in Southeastern Kentucky). So before I get into my world view, there is one more Kentucky story I need to tell you.
It became apparent very quickly, that belonging to a church was a very important part of life in Southeastern Kentucky. I got asked on several occasions by students who attended the college that I was visiting which church I belonged to back home which inevitably led to a discussion about my being Jewish. This generally got one of two reactions.
Reaction 1: You mean don’t have electricity or drive cars or anything? (Actually, that’s Amish. I’m Jewish.)
Reaction 2: But if you’re not a Christian and you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your savior then you can’t go to Heaven.
Reaction 1 usually became Reaction 2 once I explained what Jewish meant. Reaction 2 was followed by a very enthusiastic invitation to attend whichever church the individual belonged to. Maybe they were awarded extra points per person ‘saved,’ as some of the college students I met were very concerned about the future of my soul.
Growing up, I had heard that there were people out there who believed that because I was not a Christian, I was doomed to spend eternity in Hell. I had made the assumption that anyone who thought that, must be coming from a place of hate- you didn’t relegate to Hell people that you love. Now, here I stood, face to face, with “the people” I had been warned about. But I didn’t hear hatred in their voices. I didn’t see hatred in their eyes. That’s not to say that there aren’t people walking around with hate in their hearts. It just wasn’t my experience. In fact, except for one negative interaction with a woman from a group called ‘The Christian Crusaders’ I found that people were genuinely concerned about me and scared for me. They wanted me to feel the same comfort and security that they felt through their relationship with Christ. They were coming, at least in part, from a place of love, and in part, I think, a place of fear.
Being able to understand the intent behind their belief system allowed me to remove judgment from my side of the aisle and see them as individuals. Despite my disagreeing with their religious beliefs, we shared many similarities. These were college students, just like me; active, service- oriented community members. They worried about their grades, and were trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they “grew up.” Our commonalities seemed to outweigh our differences.
This experience got me thinking. How do we know what we truly believe? If we just take the belief system we were raised with (be it political or religious) and carry it into adulthood without questioning it, is it really our belief system? I had extremely strong opinions when I was in high school and college and I was pretty vocal about them. It wasn’t until I took myself out of my comfort zone that I realized that some of those very strong opinions weren’t my opinions at all. They were my parents’ opinions. It had never really occurred to me before then to question what my parents had taught me, but beginning that semester in Kentucky, and for years afterwards, as I experienced life for myself I began to realize that I didn’t believe everything my parents believed.
“Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com”
Should people take their belief systems out for a test drive? If so, how does one go about doing that? When we are young, we are tested constantly by our peers who try to get us to go against “the establishment.” Whether through peer pressure, or games of Truth or Dare, kids are constantly pushing each other and themselves to test boundaries and see what they can accomplish. As an example, sit down and watch snowboarding or BMX biking the next time it is on TV. These young athletes invent all sorts of moves that seem to defy the laws of physics, and they do it by pushing past previously set boundaries to see what is possible.
As we get into adulthood it seems that we are pushed (by our peers and ourselves) to conform to the establishment, instead of against it. People who operate outside the “norm” are considered “radicals” or “extremists.” The OWS protesters are “hippies” and Michelle Bachmann is “crazy.” In my opinion, people who push the boundaries serve a very important purpose in our society. They force us to actually think about what we believe. By sparking dialogue they get us to actually talk about the issues that are important to us. They make us think about where we stand. The problem comes in when we don’t take the time to understand why we believe what we think we believe, and how we can better communicate that piece to those who stand across the aisle.
As adults, we have the option of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people. Instead of encouraging each other to explore alternative points of view, we rile each other up and feel even more justified in our belief system than before. We also end up feeling more “right” thereby making the other side completely “wrong” in our minds eye. That works great for politicians trying to gather support from their base, but it completely disregards the valuable life experiences that we have all had that are at the roots of our belief systems.
If our system of values does, in fact, originate in our childhoods, then it makes perfect sense that our belief systems are different. We live in an extremely diverse country with many different cultures, religions, and geographic topographies. Just based on geography alone- whether you were raised in the mountains, near an ocean, or in the desert, changes the things that you value. Once you throw religion, ethnic background, and socio-economic circumstances into the mix- it’s amazing that any of us have anything in common at all. We are never all going to believe the same thing. People have tried throughout history to make us all the same- The Crusades, The Holocaust, the recent genocides in Darfur and around the world. It has never worked, and it will never work.
My belief in God is fluid. I believe in something that cannot so easily be defined. But even if we all believed that we were all created in God’s image that does not mean that God intended for us to all be carbon copies of each other. If you believe that God created a wide diversity of plants and animals, and widely varying geography, and temporal climates, then why is it so hard to believe that he also purposely created an amazingly diverse population of people with a wide variety of abilities, talents, beliefs, and opinions?
I was born Jewish in New York. But what if I had been born Muslim in Michigan or Buddhist in China? In some ways, the initial set of beliefs that we get are random. We are born at the starting line and given some general rules to live by while we figure the whole thing out for ourselves. But I don’t believe that we are required or expected to die living by the same exact rules that we start with. To me, that would mean that we didn’t learn anything along the way.
So how do we put our belief system to the test? By actually putting ourselves in positions where we have to think about something that is not in our area of expertise. Here is an example of how I try to test my own boundaries:
A friend of mine is a very active member of her evangelical church. A few months back she posted on Facebook an audio track of a sermon her clergy member had given during services. She asked people to listen to it as she felt strongly that there was a very important message about misconceptions that people have about Christians. I wasn’t sure, being Jewish, that there was a whole lot I could learn from an evangelical preacher, but I decided to give it a listen. The preacher was saying that there are folks out there who call themselves Christian but perhaps do not act in such a way that personifies true Christian beliefs (for example, people who resort to violence, or who are hypocritical in their actions). He said that some people might look at those people and generalize about all Christians. Christians, he said, (and I am summarizing, not quoting) do not want to be represented by the lowest common denominator. And it was frustrating to him that these were the “Christians” garnering the most media attention.
I thought about this for a while and decided that I agree with him. I agree so strongly that I’m taking it a step further. NOBODY wants to be represented by the lowest common denominator. Whether you are one of the millions of peaceful Muslims being poorly represented by a much smaller group of violent Muslims, or a Jew who does not want to be represented by a small group of ultra-Orthodox who hurl insults at children as they walk to school, we are all individuals who deserve to be judged based on our individual merits and if we are not privy to each other’s individual merits then we should just withhold judgment altogether. It turns out I did have something to gain by listening to an evangelical preacher after all.
Change is hard and can be scary. For some people, change only comes as a result of a life altering experience- serious illness or injury, or a great loss, for example. For most people, I think change is a slow and gradual process brought on by our interactions in the world. I believe that the greater our interactions and willingness to step outside our little boxes, so grows our capacity for change and our capacity for human understanding. Perhaps if we approached each other with curiosity instead of with fear and anger, we could find a place where we could have a real conversation.
I think there is a danger in becoming complacent. On a National level, we have reached a point where we have stopped listening to each other all together. People seem to want to be heard- they are taking their issues very public- to Facebook, blogs, television, and campaign trails. But despite all the noise we are making, we are not hearing each other very well.
There are personal implications as well. How many times have we sat at our desk at work, or lay awake at night staring at the ceiling and thought, “I’m in a rut” or “I thought my life would be different than this.” We might even project our discontent onto other people thinking that our boss, coworkers, spouse, or children are to blame. Maybe we are feeling that way because we have stopped listening to our own little voice. We are tired and burnt out and busy doing a hundred different things- many of them things that we maybe don’t want to be doing at all.
So, faithful readers, I am issuing you a challenge- a truth or dare opportunity- if you choose to accept it. I dare you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new for 30 days. It can be anything. Read a newspaper that you find to be biased against your typical point of view and see if you learn anything. Try a new exercise program. Visit a house of worship different from your own. When you start to get that “I’m not so sure about this” feeling, just go with it. Let your brain actually think about it instead of going straight to that place of anger or resistance. Try something new for a month and see if it changes your thought process at all.
And just to prove to you that I wouldn’t ask you to do something that I’m not willing to do myself, I have already started. I have always been curious about the vegetarian lifestyle and have decided to go both vegetarian and dairy free for 30 days. (Today is day four.) I want to see if the experience changes the way I think about what I put in my body, or where my food is coming from. I am already learning (I’m sure you’ll be reading all about it in a future blog) and life is a little more interesting than it was four days ago.
If you decide to take me up on my challenge, I would love to hear about it. If you think that everything I’ve written is a bunch of malarkey, that’s okay too. My belief system does not have to be your belief system, nor is it a threat to your belief system. If you have taken even one thing from what I have written (like I did from the evangelical sermon) then I would encourage you to share this post and get some real conversation rolling. Thanks for reading!
*Quotation is from Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future Berrett-Koehler Publishers; First Edition (January 9, 2002)