You Must Understand Why You Believe What You Believe — And How You Got There

You didn’t always feel this way.

The Environment

The Election

The Kardashians

I write these three subjects up on the whiteboard and ask students to take 60 seconds to write about each one. “Write the first thing that comes to mind, don’t overthink it, don’t explain, just write your thoughts,” I say. Some people roll their eyes, others dive right in. Everyone writes the most about The Kardashians.

This is an exercise that I have students perform in many of my writing classes. It may seem silly at first, but it is an exercise that I’ve found critical to not only my work as a writer, but to my life as an engaged member of society. It’s an exercise that I think you may find useful as well.

So let’s try it together. Pick one of the topics — um…the Kardashians are a good start, take 60 seconds, and free-write all the thoughts and feelings that come to mind. I’ll wait.

When we do this exercise in class, the responses to the Kardashians are often quick and condemning. Phrases like, “the worst thing to happen to television,” “vapid,” “empty,” “the opposite of feminism,” and others like it tend to crop up. I write a large sample of them up on the board.

Next, I ask the class a question that I’m now going to ask you: “When did you start believing that about the Kardashians?”

No matter how strong your feelings about the Kardashians may be, there was a time where you thought literally nothing about them. There was a time where they didn’t exist for you at all. Then there was a time of awareness, and as you became more familiar with them, the opinion you have now began to form. But chances are, if you talk about the Kardashians, you and many others talk about them as if you’ve always felt about them the way that you feel now. Many who have very strong Kardashian feelings will look at people who feel differently about the Kardashians as if they have no sense. But that conflict and disconnect is not based on a difference of opinion, it’s based on a journey forgotten.

Let’s set the Kardashians aside and get to the larger point. Many of our deeply-held beliefs have been just as un-investigated as our beliefs about the Kardashians. We regularly go to the mat, in-person and online, for ideas that we don’t fully understand. We’ve torched friendships over stances that we aren’t sure why we’re taking. For writers — especially writers of opinion columns — it’s a dangerous and irresponsible way to write, but for all of us it is a dangerous and irresponsible way to live.

If we want to have real confidence in our ideas and opinions, if we want to not only be engaged, but also morally consistent community members, if we want to be understood and understand others — we have to learn why we believe what we believe and how we got there. Think of a social issue you were debating recently. Think of the opinion and argument you were putting forward so vigorously.

  • Can you remember a time when you felt differently?
  • Can you remember why you felt differently?
  • Can you remember the events or thought process that brought you along the path to the understanding you have today?

If you run through this exercise honestly there are some very interesting things you may learn. Often, people discover at least one of the following:

  • Your journey is a story that you can use to help others along the path to similar understanding.
  • Your journey is bullshit and not at all worthy of such strongly held beliefs (I can’t tell you how often I’ve run through this exercise in my head and discovered my journey was little more than “my mom said it to me once when I was a kid”).
  • Your journey actually took you on a different path that you didn’t see, and you don’t honestly believe what you think you believe.
  • There was a fork in the road to where you are now, and you could have easily taken another equally valid journey to another equally valid belief.

These discoveries are enlightening and useful. You can use this exercise to not only firm up your beliefs, but also to be able to recognize where others may be in their journey of understanding and to find a place of connection with them that had seemed impossible before (and if you are a writer, divulging part of this journey is a wonderful way of establishing trust with a reader). But most importantly, this exercise can help keep you honest.

We regularly go to the mat, in-person and online, for ideas that we don’t fully understand.

An honest examination of your beliefs is a lot like cleaning house (I’m using creative imagination here because I never clean my house). You have a lot of stuff in your house and it can all seem like very necessary stuff. But if you buy every item that catches your eye and take it home with you, it will pile up, block your doorway, and cut you off from the rest of the world. But if you regularly hold each item up to the light and ask, “why do I really have this? Is it helping me? Is this meeting my needs? Did this ever meet my needs? Do I really need to keep this or is it adding to the clutter and preventing me from being able to find the truly useful things I already have or could replace it with?” then you will live a life where you can breathe more easily, enjoy what you have, and freely invite people in. You clean your house and you move forward with the confidence that you own your stuff, and your stuff doesn’t own you.

Stop letting your beliefs own you. Examine them closely. Keep what is honest and useful, throw away the clutter, and repair what is valuable yet damaged. Your beliefs are important, but they are not permanent. Remember, you didn’t always feel this way — about anything.

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