The Willingness to Be Wrong
You are completely wrong about something.
Probably multiple things.
I vividly recall the the zeal in my heart and the certainty in my mind as I descended upon the state capitol in 2011 to protest our new governor’s
legislation related to collective bargaining. I was disgusted by our new administration and felt energized by the crowd of passionate protesters.
A few days later, I found myself in a Facebook-based debate about unions with a friend-of-a-friend. I was ready to battle, salivating at my next opportunity to level him with a witty, condescending retort.
But something happened that had never happened to me before - he didn’t engage me in battle. Rather, he shared facts and asked questions. How novel! Disarmed by his civility, I found myself considering his points rather than attacking him. In short order, I was confronted with an earth-shattering reality - I knew nothing about unions. Nothing. All I knew how to do was fervently - and without substance - defend the views of the political side with which I had always identified.
This was a painful and embarrassing revelation. I started to reflect on all of the ideological wars I had waged despite being woefully uninformed about the subject at hand. Nearly every person in my life had shared my political and social views, and it had never occurred to me that maybe my echo chamber contained as many weaknesses as every other echo chamber.
Despite the discomfort this expanded perspective brought, it was also unbelievably exciting. Where else, I wondered, had I been lying to myself? What else had I convinced myself that I knew with certainty, when in reality I was virtually clueless yet terrified to accept it? What else could I learn, now that I was willing to be wrong?
One of the great challenges of adulthood is belief. I would go so far as to argue that our relationship to belief will make or break our adulthood. And since a key aspect of adulthood is being of value to your community, I will extend this to say that your relationship to belief will make or break your value to your community.
Generally speaking, there are two belief paths to choose from as you adultify:
Become more and more attached to your beliefs.
Become less and less attached to your beliefs.
At their best, beliefs help us navigate the world - they help us survive. If you believe it’s unsafe to close your eyes while driving, that’s probably a good thing for the purposes of survival. From infancy, we begin to compile beliefs about how the world works, and thus your personal Belief System is formed.
The adaptive function of belief is to facilitate the survival of the physical organism. Now that we’ve largely got that part down, belief is functioning as a mechanism for identity survival - and that’s a huge problem. The dark side of belief is that we get attached to who we believe we are - to our self-image.
We see that manifest in everything from sports team affiliation to political affiliation. If, for example, I’m “pro union”, my mind’s mission is to do everything in its power to not let me believe anything negative about unions. Why?
Because if unions aren’t perfect, what does that say about that “pro union” aspect of my identity?
If I’m wrong about that, what else am I wrong about?
And if I’m not a democrat or a Packers fan or whatever other aspect of my self-image I’m attached to, then who am I?
Can I bear the shame of being so very wrong for so many years?
And if sharing this belief has allowed me to feel like I belong among my friends and family, will I be utterly alone if I discard it?
We don’t want to go there, so we ignore evidence and instead project our beliefs onto the world to preserve our self-image.
This keeps us comfortable, but it’s at a terrible cost. The cost is an inability to grow and evolve as an individual, and an inability to grow and evolve as a society. The cost is the increasing polarization we’re experiencing today in our country.
We hold onto our beliefs for the survival of our self-image, yet paradoxically, our doing so may lead to the extinction of our species. We’re unconsciously trading actual survival for emotional survival.
Viewed through the lens of your Belief System, everything seems to support what you already “know” to be true. The more deeply embedded your life is in your beliefs, the more painful it is to challenge them.
I recently watched this TedTalk given by Cassie Jaye, a formerly self-identified feminist documentarian. For her movie The Red Pill, she interviewed members of the Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) community with an intention to expose the bigotry and ignorance of her enemy. However, through the process of making the film, her entire worldview shifted. In her talk, she reveals the evolution of her Belief System, providing a perfect example of how beliefs create reality, not the other way around.
That seemingly inconsequential exchange on social media in 2011 shifted the course of my life. To this day, I still cringe with discomfort in those moments when I realize my beliefs require correction, but it’s also a feeling of exhilaration. Shattering of a belief opens up new worlds and inspires creative energy. I used to cling to my beliefs and rely on them for a sense of who I am. Now that I’m a real adult, I want to uncover the truth.
How would the world be different if we pursued the truth rather than validation of our beliefs? What are you after: preserving your self-image, or uncovering the truth? The former leads to stagnation at the individual level, and deeply entrenched conflict at the societal level. The latter, on the other hand, leads to greater understanding, connection, and collaboration. Which will you choose?