Hi there, Celebrationists. Happy Monday.
1. I am grateful for good, kind, supportive, inspiring friends – both old and new
2. I am grateful for another upcoming week of writing plays with incredible kiddos
3. I am grateful for appliances that work. I can certainly think of many a New York apartment where that wasn’t the case…
This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about belief, as it relates to identity.
When I was in high school we had to complete a writing assignment called “I Believe,” in which we were tasked with creating a piece of writing that detailed the particulars of what we, as ninth graders stood for. I’m pretty certain that I turned my statement of belief into a poem, and incorporated the loopiest and most classically feminine font that was still legible. It had to feel like me, after all. I also remember that we were required to begin each new phrase with “I believe…”.
I recall working on this paper obsessively – not just because I wanted a good grade, but because I was convinced that “knowing” these things about myself…where I stood on all matters religious, political, ethical, and on every subject in between, would bring me a sense of peace, more (or any) self-confidence, and unconsciously, something that resembled control. That being super self-actualized would bring me one step closer to being an adult – which I thought I was ready for by the time I was seven. The need to know myself felt so crushingly important, and when I didn’t have an answer for a belief-based question, I felt somehow deficient, or even worse – stupid, my most thundering fear.
I don’t have that paper in front of me now, but I’m quite certain that a lot of what I wrote has changed substantially. And thank goodness, right? Up until that point, all of the information that went into my system of belief was essentially from one perspective. And that’s not the way I like to make my decisions now.
What I know for sure is that at this particular moment in my life (and who knows, it will probably change again in a couple of years), what I’m finding the greatest peace and contentment in, is the not knowing of things. Or rather, I’m just starting to find greater enjoyment in everything I don’t fully understand. And the older I get the more I realize that there’s a lot of it.
To be clear, I’m a big fan of getting to know ourselves. I love self-help books with a fiery passion, believe in being thoughtfully researched, well read, and intelligently informed on a topic. I find reflection an important and natural part of my day. I also do think there’s merit in asking high school students to look inward and put their current opinions down on paper, as we did in that ninth grade religion class. But I think there’s a fine line between knowing ourselves, and having a death grip on a particular way of thinking to the point that we shut out all other possibilities and miss out, big time. Or worse, that we create aggression and division without meaning to, because we become more obsessed with the idea of “being right” than we do with the actual belief at hand. History offers us many examples of what that kind of close-mindedness and lack of empathy can lead to.
Things I wish I’d been thinking about, back in high school:
- Humans are not fixed beings. I am not the same person today that I was yesterday, and it’s only natural that my thoughts and beliefs will change as I gather more information about the world
- That sometimes clinging hard to a fixed idea gets in the way of my ability to take in new information
- Growing up, my fear was bigger than my curiosity. I work really hard now to make sure that curiosity wins the day
- That questioning our beliefs from time to time is important – it’s so easy to “decide” how we feel, and then get complacent and lacking in compassion
- It’s always easier to just accept and own a belief that is popular in our particular circles, but it’s infinitely more satisfying to interrogate the idea for myself before claiming it as my own
- That having an opinion about something, no matter how strong, does not a reality make
- That there is beauty, joy, and real learning to be found in the nonjudgmental regarding of a person whose beliefs are nothing like mine. I used to view this as threatening or “putting myself in a bad situation,” and now I regard it as essential
- A great deal of peace can be found when we release our need to act like we know everything. Mostly because we don’t know everything, and we never will. And being a curious collector of all sorts of information is actually really enjoyable
- That open-mindedness, and a willingness to listen and receive new ideas with an open heart is a strength, not a weakness
Pema Chodron, who I adore, (and quote constantly) says something I just love, on this topic. This quote makes me think of my child-self, and the identity I wanted so badly to cement. She says, “We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”
I think many of us spend so much of our lives wanting to be “on the right side of things.” But the truth is, we don’t know what that really means, do we? And while the unnerving sensation of not-knowing might make us seize up in an icy grip of terror at first… if we allow ourselves to relax into that fluid, groundless space, we might be amazed by what we find there. We might discover that a little bit of not-knowing is quite all right. That perhaps some measure of wisdom and happiness lies in the willingness to learn, to seek, and to be in the process of constantly discovering.
“All the wars, all the hatred, all the ignorance in the world come out of being so invested in our opinions. And at bottom, those opinions are merely our efforts to escape the underlying uneasiness of being human, the uneasiness of feeling like we can’t get ground under our feet. So we hold on to our fixed ideas of this is how it is and disparage any opposing views. But imagine what the world would be like if we could come to see our likes and dislikes as merely likes and dislikes, and what we take to be intrinsically true as just our personal viewpoint.” ~Pema Chodron