The Atlas

The Choice to Believe

At the end of last week's episode of Grow or Die, I referenced a story from Brene Brown that I love: she asked her husband if he truly believed that people are doing the best that they can. And he very thoughtfully answered that, while he didn't know if people were, he knew his life was better when he chose to believe they were.

I love this story for two really big reasons:

  1. So much of how people tend to react to other people is often rooted in whether or not we give someone the benefit of the doubt or not. And one of those basic questions is, "Do I believe this person is doing the best they can?" Quite often, the people we have the most patience with are the ones about whom we can answer YES to that question, the the people to whom we have less patient responses are the ones to whom we would answer NO (or at least NOT NECESSARILY).
  2. Whether or not we believe this -- or much of anything else -- about someone is actually a CHOICE, even if we aren't conscious of it. We often think of "belief" as something we have or don't, often something as big as religion (or at least god), and often as something somehow binary. But the reality of belief is far more nuanced and fluid than that, and it spans the spectrum between whether we believe that our dog is capable of learning new commands to whether we believe there is a Higher Power steering the universe.

Since recalling this story with Lawrence last week, I've been watching for the wildly varying signs of this. Seeing someone make the choice to believe can sometimes be alarming (e.g. Watching a deeply religious person discount scientific evidence in favor of religious doctrine.), and it can sometimes be inspiring (e.g. Watching outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainians refuse to yield to Putin's slaughter.).

And in all cases, I find myself coming back to the same basic question: what makes someone choose belief or not, given different circumstances?

The answer continually feels pretty simple to me: when the alternative is too painful to entertain.

That's an inherently 'negative' answer (in the mathematical sense of the word, not the qualitative), which I normally don't like, but it begs another one: what constitutes a "painful alternative" to belief?

And here we get to the heart of coaching: if I had to venture a guess, I'd say that for most of us, things that are actively PAINFUL alternatives are things that run counter to our most basic values or which stoke our deepest fears.

  • If my deepest fear is death, then choosing to believe in an eternal afterlife is a choice that could bring me comfort.
  • If my most horror-inducing terror is subjugation, then choosing to believe in the inalienability of my own freedom and dignity is empowering.
  • If my most essential value is loyalty, then being part of a tribe of equally passionate people could be more important than what we actually believe in.
  • If my most closely held value is authenticity, then being allowed the space and freedom to be myself regardless of my lack of conformance to other people's definitions of "normal."

Over the past couple of weeks, as I've been heartbroken over what has been happening in Ukraine, we have seen American legislatures pass some truly terrible, cruel laws adversely affecting trans and gay populations, and voters of color. And while I never rule out a politicians self-serving opportunism in stoking the fears and anxieties of voters, the question that constantly surfaces is, "But why does it work so well?"

I think this is the heart of the reason. Most people don't stop to really dig into why something bothers them, or why they find Option A morally superior to Option B. But until we do that, we can't ever get clear on something that ultimate defines each of our lives: are we living a life ruled by fear or by compassion?

For as much as many of us have demons that drive us to act out of fear, I think most of us find inspiration and meaning in compassion. It's a privilege to live in a time and place to have that choice, to be sure. But I think that's what we see when we watch President Zelensky stand up to his would-be assassins and tell the world, "I am here. We will not stand down." It's a rather David-and-Goliath-esque willingness to make the choice to believe.

Because the alternative is simply too damn painful to entertain.

Slava Ukraini!

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