Tag Archives: personal

“Doubt Truth to Be a Liar”

I’ve been in a funk lately. Here’s why.

Psychologists use the term “schema” to describe the result of collecting information, analyzing it, and creating a view of the world based on that analysis. A kind of rule book of how things are. These schemata play a part in every decision made, every judgment cast, and every new piece of information we take in for the rest of our lives. It’s a term closely tied to child development–in fact, it was introduced by Jean Piaget, the king of child development himself.

My job as a teacher requires me to observe children under two, record their actions, and ultimate try to guide them by manipulating the information they take in. I give them a bucket of water, they explore the physical properties, I supply the language necessary to categorize them, and then teach them how to clean up. They hit another child and steal his toy, I show them the child’s tears and explain that their actions resulted in someone else’s pain. Everything is a brave new world when you’re brand new to it. Schemata form by the moment. They’re dependent on the environment encountered and the child’s interaction with it. Childhood is, in effect, a 20-year-long experiment in brain development.

Here’s the thing about schemata. They can be very difficult to shake. Another term psychologists like to throw around is “cognitive dissonance.” This occurs when new information presents itself in contradiction to established schemata. The resulting dissonance can be so unpleasant that the individual will go to great lengths to reduce it while maintaining the fundamentals of the established schema, resulting in massively flawed rationalizations. That’s why certain worldviews, like racism, are so hard to dislodge from someone’s psyche.

Last week I endured a viewing of the excellent but brutal Twelve Years a Slave. From our modern, enlightened viewpoint, the white slaveholders in this movie are incomprehensible. Can they not see that their actions have no true basis, are damaging, are fundamentally wrong? We can see it, why can’t they? Our schemata are different. The majority of people in this society are not raised to view entire segments of humans as inferior based on skin color. Though discrimination of course still exists, in both racism and class discrimination, modern enlightened people are not taught that slavery is a god-given right to a select group to subjugate another. So we watch characters behave in intolerable ways and wonder, “How can they be so cruel?” It’s obvious to us.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years a Slave

The most interesting character, in my view, is William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is the slave owner who buys main character Solomon Northrup right off the boat, putting him to work on his plantation in Louisiana. Ford quickly discerns the intellectual and artistic capabilities of Northrup and displays a certain amount of kindness toward both his physical and emotional well being, defending him against less compassionate overseers. However, when the time comes for him to make a choice that brings his entire worldview into question, he ultimately fails, and with apparent great inner turmoil. Rather than siding with an individual who had already proven his worth, he chooses to uphold society’s proscribed roles for both of them. You can see the conflict in Cumberbatch’s exquisite acting and in the details of the set dressing, as Ford guards his beloved slave with a shotgun and explains how he has no choice but to sell him to a cruel new master, Northrup’s bloodied head rests on a delicate lace pillow. Ford is so close to doing what he most likely knows in his heart is right, but societal pressures prevent him from overturning his deeply-entrenched schemata. In the end, Northrup is sold, and Ford no longer has to defend his actions to anyone.

All this is by way of illustration. My funk has nothing to do with racism, but it’s an apt analogy, because good people have fallen victim to such lies. Contrary to what people like to think, there were even good Nazis (I keep meaning to watch Schindler’s List). Good people can be taken by lies. They can believe them with every part of their being, and they will die for them. And that’s what scares me, because the people who get taken are much more normal and intelligent than you might think.

Needless to say I am going through a change. It’s been long in coming. Almost my entire life has been dedicated to a single purpose, and over the past seven years or so, in reflection I recognize myself trying to make sense of it. It’s not until your mid-twenties, after all, that your prefrontal cortex fully develops. This is the part of your brain responsible for “executive functions,” which, according to Wikipedia:

differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).

Last week I turned 27. Instead of joining the 27 Club, I’m instead learning to think for myself. My schemata have proved to be based on logical fallacies and, in many cases, wishful thinking. It’s all good and well to teach children to obey their parents, but to obey unquestioningly? That’s insulting the intelligence of the child. A child can easily learn why it’s best not to play with fire by playing with it and getting burned. Parents try to avoid that by teaching children to keep their hands off. One method, involving instilling unquestioning obedience, usually results in children testing their parents’ command and playing with fire anyway. Others are more successful. Teaching children how to reason on matters, explaining the facts to them, and helping them form conclusions is more beneficial to the child. After all, the unquestioning child, instead of rebelling against the parent’s wishes, may grow up to fear fire, never learning to discriminate between safe and unsafe use and therefore miss out on the benefits it has to offer.

I am reaching the point in my life where I’m putting what I was taught to the test and discovering where it does not hold up. It is a long and exhausting process, full of disappointment. At times I feel betrayed, but mostly I feel free. Not necessarily free to do whatever I want, like the child who breaks away from mother in a toy store and runs wild, but free to not to be afraid of things that have terrified me my entire life. People are not bad; I do not have to be afraid of them. I can form friendships using good judgment that will benefit us both, unconditionally. I no longer have to turn people away because they don’t subscribe to a particular belief system. I’m free to form connections, share information, and experience love in a way I never could before. 

A little more about that information. It’s the free exchange of information that got me out of this funk. I am grateful to so many people who directly and indirectly were able to remove the scales from my eyes and help me to see reason. If you want more specific information, I encourage you to look at Steven Hassan’s BITE model of mind control. The organization I grew up in hits on all four categories in profound ways.

My goal here is not to write a diatribe against my former belief system. There were many positives to growing up as I did. Other people are working actively to expose the fallacies and are doing much better than I ever could. It is not in me to dwell on so much negativity, although I must admit my first reaction to finding out the truth was anger.

Besides, if I get too deep into the specifics of what’s happening to me, people who read this blog and who currently hold my previous beliefs can get me and my loved ones into serious trouble. I don’t want to cause trouble for my loved ones. I don’t want to force upon them an impossible choice, namely, choosing between me and their beliefs. For my part, I want us all to get along. I want us all to be able to form our own beliefs without fear of reprisal, criticism, or ostracism. If the wrong people gather enough evidence of my “change of heart,” I will be ostracized from the social group I have been in my entire life, and my own family with be restricted from associating with me. I do not want to do that to them, but at the same time, even though they are as much taken by the destructive beliefs as I was, the choice will ultimately be theirs. Believe what others tell them is true, or endeavor to decide that for themselves. And accept the consequences of their actions, just as I have to accept the consequences of mine.

I’ve probably said too much. I have tried to hold back, but my love of truth prevents me.

One final thought about the title of this post. In Shakespeare’s day, “doubt” had the alternative meaning of “suspect.” The line can thus be interpreted to mean “suspect truth to possibly be untrue.” Do not just take someone’s word for it, or the word of a group of people, even every person you know. They can be wrong. Prove it to yourself. Keep testing, keep proving what it is you believe, and never stop.

Alternatively, read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He possibly says it better than me.

2+2≠5

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Personal Archive: “How to Lose a Friend”

(Note: I wrote this essay a couple years ago for English 101. See this post for background info. All photos are from our trip and taken by me.)

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She followed me all over that island.

From the moment we stepped off the plane, I went and she followed. When we arrived at Euston Station and stood before the map of Technicolor spaghetti that’s the London Underground, I pointed and she followed. From Manchester to Ilford, from Beddgelert to Edinburgh, I got the directions, copied the confirmation numbers, reserved the rooms and read the maps.

Maybe she couldn’t do it herself. Maybe she didn’t want to. But for the first time in our lives, she was completely willing to let me take the lead, and with that sort of trust, how could I refuse? With every step I heard her voice just behind me, the fall of her feet and the straps of her backpack clinking. So it’s strange to me, looking back on a friendship three years dead, that it was on that trip I started to lose her.

No two people can be exactly alike, much as they’d like to think they are. Even in our childhood it was evident Emma and I didn’t share certain interests. A love of art, language, music and beauty: the obvious things were the things we bonded over. Things you can feel with your hands and hear with your ears. We painted together, watched movies and made clothing, played guitar and obsessed about the Beatles, all at shared levels of enthusiasm. But when I wondered out loud what the songs were about, or what the artists were feeling when they applied paint to the canvases we both loved so much, she would laugh and ask why I bothered with those kinds of things. As much as I tried, I couldn’t give her an answer. I just did. I saw things that were not there, thought about things that didn’t exist–not anywhere outside my own head.

However, that was beginning to change. With a lot of work and a little bit of magic, I was learning to make them exist, for real, in the world we both inhabited. That’s what I was trying to do with my story about Dinas Emrys.

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As we were planning our month-long tour of the UK, I made one thing clear: I wanted to go to Wales. Not just any part of Wales. Snowdonia, specifically the village of Beddgelert. I wanted to climb Dinas Emrys and take pictures of the ruins while I was on the same continent. It was my only stipulation.

You can find it easily; a mere stone’s throw from the A498, you don’t even have to get out of your car to get a picture of it. A rocky hilltop with a shaggy pelt of bushes and scrub running along its back, Dinas Emrys embodied everything I was struggling to express with my writing: rich history, hidden treasure, a tapestry of folklore and actual ruins you could visit, touch, feel and experience. Here at last was a physical link between the world of my imagination and the world everyone else inhabited. There was no way we could pass up an opportunity to visit.

Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised with the way it turned out. Hiking for miles up to your knees in mud, following a meandering course up an obscure hilltop it’s technically illegal to climb, all to take some pictures of a pile of rocks isn’t high on many people’s list of things to do before they die. Maybe I was expecting too much out of her. Maybe I was just hoping for a little bit more.

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“I’m gonna go back to the room and watch TV for a while,” she told me over scrambled eggs and oatmeal in the bed and breakfast dining room. A dark-haired family in the corner spoke softly in Welsh, their words sounding like a limerick over the tinkling of forks and spoons.

“But. . . I thought we were going to Dinas Emrys today.”

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Again? We went yesterday.”

“We just went by and took pictures. Today I want to climb to the top.”

I have lovely pictures of us that day: her standing by a stone shed almost completely covered in moss and lichen; her in front of the lake; another one of her in front of the lake; and the obligatory me as a speck in a field, with my mountain as the backdrop. That entire trip, the only pictures of me are the ones I coaxed her to hold my camera and take. If she didn’t come, who would take my picture at the top?

“You can go,” she said, her voice taking a sharp turn up. “But I wanna stay in the room this morning.”

Our room had been a deal, but that’s the extent of its praise. We slept in the attic, with the only view of the windswept countryside being straight up, through the skylight.

“Emma, this is why we came to Wales. I have to climb that mountain.”

“Then climb it.”

“I don’t wanna go by myself.”

I should have mentioned the movie premier in London I endured for her, the press of people twenty-deep against my back, a man dressed as a pirate nearly knocking me down when the stars passed within autograph reach. My camera held those pictures too, and she’d looked at them every day since.

I should have mentioned it, but all I could think about was being alone, for the first time, in the wilderness of a country that wasn’t mine.

“Please, Emma. Come with me.”

“I told you, I don’t want to go. It’s going to rain and I’m tired and we went out yesterday. My shoes are still wet and I have a blister. We’ve been travelling for weeks and all I wanna do is lie around and watch TV and do nothing!”

The family in the corner stopped talking. I looked down at my eggs, half finished and cold on my plate.

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I climbed it, of course. This wouldn’t be much of a story if I didn’t. The pictures are a swirl of green moss, black earth and grey sky. I sat on the ruins of the 11th-century keep and thought about characters that would never come to life, a story that would die in my mind. I wiped the rain from my lens and started down the mountain, imagining–as always–I heard the footsteps that did not follow.

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