This month we are talking about belief and how it is woven throughout our daily lives. When you hear of the word “belief”, do you feel excited and emboldened? Or do you instinctively flinch or get nervous? When we chose this theme, I know that a part of me felt inspired, and a part of me felt really uncomfortable. Not because I don’t think belief is important–even essential to talk about, but because it seems that the word “belief” is often used as both a weapon and defense, leaving little room for civil discourse.
During an election year, the media is especially rife with commentary on politicians’ religious beliefs, or lack thereof–with constant attacks and accusations from both parties. Much has also been said on the danger of extreme religious beliefs, and there has been debate over the right to practice or express certain views. People make ludicrous and hurtful statements supporting or rejecting others’ belief. Fervent conviction (religious or otherwise) can be seen as extreme or delusional. Phrases like “Don’t force your beliefs on me” or “Keep your beliefs to yourself” turn the word “belief” into an object of separatism and avoidance. Yet people have lived and died over the strength of their beliefs. So what to do with such a loaded word?
As we delve into what it means to “believe” in something, we want to veer away from divisive language and explore some of the more nuanced facets of belief. In reality, though our beliefs have the power to either strengthen or cripple us, everyone, from atheist to fundamentalist holds them, lives by them. Faith, conviction, trust, hope– all these are relatives of belief, and all are part of how we make sense of our world.
Aaron Beck, the famous psychologist and “father” of cognitive therapy, believed that our fundamental thinking and behaving is controlled by a set of core beliefs. If you can alter your beliefs, you can alter your thinking, feeling, and ultimately, your behavior. His model of therapy is still the treatment of choice for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.
Another concept in psychology is called “mental models”— deeply held internal beliefs about how the world functions that affect how we act, reason and think. These mental models both help us function in the world and alter our perception of reality.
From believing in a higher power, to believing in Santa Claus, our beliefs shape and are shaped by our culture, environment and even biology. Some evolve and change, discarded like an old childhood blanket. Others stay with us, continuing to inform our daily decisions.
This month, we will look at our own beliefs: about parenting, life, and yes, even religion. We will explore the evolution of our beliefs from childhood to adult, and the history of religious belief in Salem. We question: “If you don’t live it, do you actually believe it?”, “What happens when we believe a lie?” and “How do you stand by your convictions while still keeping an open mind?” We even discuss belief with a local business owner.
Malcolm X said, “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.”
Ultimately our purpose is to strengthen our own awareness in what we “stand for” so that we will act with thought and intention. Sometimes our own dysfunctional beliefs are hidden from us, and the effects of these beliefs can have devastating consequences on our lives. Similarly, understanding which beliefs make us better community members, parents, and friends, will help us reinforce and share them with others.
When we constructively examine the core beliefs that shape our emotions and actions, we can change and grow for the better, and possibly open up space for others to change and grow as well.