I was talking with my dad yesterday, and our conversation turned toward the topic of change. Particularly, we were talking about what it takes to change your mind—to move toward a new idea or concept and abandon your previous thinking. And that discussion led to some thought about how my own progression and development of thought has come about.
Admittedly, I have had experience and opportunities to gain knowledge that others have not. That knowledge and experience have definitely been part of my transition from one school of thought to another. But I sometimes feel that there is something more leading my shift in ideas. And I began to consider what that might be.
At times, I think that my childhood traumas might have had an unintended consequence of pushing me toward something new. The stark difference between what I was told and what I was experiencing motivated me to look for something that seemed more honest and authentic. And the shame and struggle of being different and feeling tainted or marked in some way caused me to seek out a framework that didn’t make me out to be some evil, sinful thing, awaiting a horrible hell where I would burn in eternal fires. (Mind you, I was feeling that way because of what was being done to me, not because of anything I had chosen to do.)
I bore the weight of many things, and I didn’t even remember some of the things until college. I was always sort of unaligned and a bit mistrusting and a tad weird, but my first year of college was the start of the journey toward full-blown PTSD crazy. Crazy isn’t a diagnosis here, but more of a title for how others began to view me. Because symptoms of rage and nightmares and flashbacks and depression and risk-taking behaviors seem like crazy to the untrained eye—and also, it would seem, to a number of professionals. (My mistrust of rural doctors is founded upon the continued failure of rural doctors—especially those of the psychiatric persuasion.) And when you are “acting crazy” you start to feel even more crazy, because you don’t really want to act out in those ways, but there is a compulsion within you that is far stronger than any reason you might try to hold onto. There isn’t really a way for the brain to rationalize away trauma, no matter how hard you try. And, for some, the harder they try, the more dissociative their condition becomes—moving toward dissociative identity disorder, which is sort of the peak of dissociative brain activity.
Luckily, my symptoms hovered in the PTSD realm. And I was also able to compartmentalize well in later years, and to push my trauma into particular and less “crazy” behaviors, like risky sex and smoking and manipulation and petty theft. While those things weren’t great for me, they helped me keep the world blind to most of the symptoms I experienced, and kept me on a more even plane, temporarily.
But, I am getting into tangent territory. And the point here wasn’t my struggle with the symptoms that arose from my childhood, but with change and shifting ideas.
I had symptoms that pushed me out into the world. I moved from city to town to city to hilltop commune to city, and I experienced life in ways that many have not. I saw poverty and abuse and homelessness and sex work and violence and mental illness and struggle of many kinds. And I saw them up close and personal, not through huffpost articles, but on the actual street and in my real life. You can’t live with and in those spaces without changing the way you think, because the truth of those things is forced upon you, and no amount of rationalizing or pontificating will make that truth go away.
But when you come back to “civilized” society after living off of trash can food and free clinics and using your body as capital, somehow the “civilized” people want you to stop believing in the truths that were evident in that other portion of your life and experience. They don’t want to hear that the poor are made so by their action or inaction. They don’t want to know that abortions happen because of careful, thoughtful consideration by intelligent and capable women. They don’t want to believe that gay people are such from birth. And no matter how many stories of civilized people with struggles I would tell, there were those who refused to believe what I knew to be true—that love lives in those people and in the midst of those challenges, and that they aren’t evil.
I remember the time when I was still attached to the thinking of my family and my hometown and the people within its boundaries. I believed in the badness of sex and drugs and curse words and poverty and moral failure of many kinds. I spoke out against abortion and thought homeless people needed to get jobs and believed that I had the right to judge others based on my superior attention to religious law. But I was wrong. I was very, extremely, ludicrously wrong.
I am fine with people being wrong due to their limited experience and understanding of a thing. I was that person. The challenge is the people who will fight to the death over their belief, which can be easily refuted with more experience and understanding.
Information is everywhere these days. You don’t have to look long or look far to grasp a greater understanding of things. But there are still many from my history or in particular circles who demand that their limited view is the correct view. They believe they have the right to judge others based on their superior attention to religious law, even when I can tell them clearly and concisely how their view of the law is incorrect. The problem, in their eyes, is the failure of my seminary training, not their understanding. And they will continue to insist upon the truth of something that is easily disproved.
Some might think that I am the same way, because I have things that I hold to and will not deny credence or accept variance. But the difference here is that I have researched and studied those things, and have not yet been offered an alternative proof. I’m not closed off and refusing to accept anything. I’m very open, or I wouldn’t be at the place I am today in my thought.
I started the shift, in some ways, when I was very young. It didn’t make sense that god is love but god didn’t rescue me from illness and abuse. I didn’t want to be in the place where I was suffering that illness and abuse. I wanted to get away. And this may have fueled my running, but it wasn’t the reason I left the ideas of my rural, religious, right-wing-esque home. I left those ideas because they were based on false assumptions and not on the truth. And when I use the term truth here, I don’t mean my opinions, but things that I have tested and found to be based in fact and supported by the stories and anecdotal evidences I have encountered.
As I moved farther from the religious teachings, and closer to the people living out a different life and expressing other ideas, I came to find that I loved learning. I loved learning so much that I decided to obtain an undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees. And the more I learned, the more I discovered that those closely held ideas in my hometown were not facts. And the more I expressed facts, instead of those closely held ideas, the more I was labeled and challenged and discounted by people in that hometown.
Yesterday, when talking with my dad, I mentioned that with every degree and every new experience, I get farther in my thinking than the previous group I shared life with. My experience in Chicago and in study of social justice moved my thinking slightly “left” of that which I believed when I was in Phoenix and studying theology. My experience in Phoenix and in study of theology moved my thinking slightly left of that which I believed when I was in Sioux Center and studying philosophy. And my experience in Sioux Center and in study of philosophy moved me slightly left of that which I believed in Kansas City and Rock Rapids and Sheldon and some remote area in Oklahoma’s red hills and in studying life’s hard knocks. So, as we dissect the course of my life, we get back to small town high school days … and the people who were in the seat next to me in high school think I am so liberal that I am going to a horrible hell where I will burn in eternal fires.
And it matters not that I can put forth an argument against a literal hell so good that I got an A+ on the paper where I did put it forth while in seminary. That first community is still filled with people who view me as the crazy, liberal, leftist evil that belongs in hell fires.
I struggle to understand people who would deny the facts, and ignore every study, and refuse to accept any anecdotal evidence, and not listen to the stories of others, but hold fast to what has been proven untrue.
I’m not that type of person. I love change. I love learning. I love knowing more and being more informed and having more ideas. I love testing theories and researching topics and gathering data. I love the moment when you say, “Oh”, because you have just discovered that you were wrong. And I love the moment when you say, “Aha”, because you have just discovered that you were correct.
So, I guess the only direction that I can go as I seek the close of this post is toward encouragement. I encourage everyone reading this to open up to an idea. Just start with one. You don’t need to live on the street and be an addict and get divorced and explore your own sexuality and go to seminary and study philosophy all at once. And you don’t need to start with the idea you hold most dear. But start with something. Pick one topic and research it and talk to people affected and gather data and take information from a variety of sources, and see if you feel differently at the end of that process than you did at the beginning. You can’t manage this type of study, however, if you cannot come to it with the understanding that you might be wrong.
All of the shifts in my thinking required this one thing: the willingness to be wrong.
I had to accept that I might be wrong about what is evil and what is good. I had to accept that I might be wrong about what causes poverty. I had to accept that I might be wrong about racial injustice. I had to accept that I might be wrong about personhood from conception. I had to accept that I might be wrong about the morality and personality of sex workers. I had to accept that I might be an addict. I had to accept that I spent years fighting battles that I now am ashamed to have fought. I had to accept that I don’t know much at all. I had to accept that I don’t have all the answers. I had to accept that my concept of the divine may have been very wrong. I had to let myself be incorrect and let myself learn from others.
I might be a stubborn and belligerent gal, but I have never not wanted to learn. And this openness to ideas has caused shift after shift after shift. And those are good. Those are well researched, touched by truth, seeking the divine, open to any outcome shifts. They weren’t all easy shifts to make.
It wasn’t easy accepting that the creation story or the story of Jonah and the whale aren’t literal. It wasn’t easy accepting that the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law. It wasn’t easy to accept that a fetus is not the same as a live birth. It wasn’t easy to accept that I have white privilege. It wasn’t easy to accept that disability doesn’t devalue a person or their life. It wasn’t easy to accept that gender is fluid. But I would rather work toward accepting something with difficulty than work toward demanding a lie be accepted as truth.
And there is a chance that I am wrong about all the things I now believe. There may be new information that comes to light, or new experience that shapes my ideas, and I may be proved wrong.
Then I will need to shift again.
In many ways change is life and life is change. I believe that in order to live fully, I need to explore in ways that allow for change to happen. This includes the humility of accepting the times when I get things wrong. And I get them wrong plenty of times, but I seek to leave my ego at the door when I engage in study or conversation, so that I can keep learning from others. And as I learn, I change. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
As I change and shift, I become a better person. Contest that all you want, I won’t retract that statement. I may not become what others wish I were—I may not fit their concept of “better”. But I am better. I am more knowledgeable and more open and more kind and more considerate and more accepting than I have ever been. And one day soon, as I learn and shift and learn and shift, I will be even more so. Not because I can shoot down other people’s ideas with fabulous amounts of sarcasm and snark, but because I can listen and learn at every moment and in every stage.
When my mother started to slip toward dementia, she went through some periods of regression. Some of the comments she made were very racist. But I knew that wasn’t my mom today coming out in the moment, but it was my mother in her youth, before she made the shift from the racism of her family members and the challenges of race in Chicago during her teens. I was watching her shift in reverse, going from the loving and caring woman she became back to the girl she once was. Those early ideas were so offensive. And my mom was a much better person at 55 than at 15. If I suffer the same disease she suffered, I might someday make an anti-transgendered comment, or say something about poor people needing to work harder. But I won’t mean it. Because I have evolved past that point. I’ve become more open and more loving and more caring, just like my mom did.
And I have rocketed past my mom’s development, and the shifting of some others, but I also come behind those who have flown to the front of the pack, leading me into a new age of thought and action and understanding. I love knowing that there are others pioneering, and that I am in good company as I continue to learn and to change.
Evolving, shifting, and changing should be seen as good. None of us should be stuck in the same rut for 80 years and then die. Not just because I see transformation as positive, but because I believe that transformation and growth are at the heart of being human. We have one of the longest periods of development of any creature on earth. We change slowly. We grow slowly. We reach our pinnacle at a very late age. And I don’t think that is accidental. I think we were meant to keep changing in order to keep evolving into a better form. We are designed to move forward. We are made for shifting.
I work on creating new neural pathways and reintegrating parts of my brain all of the time. Old humans can learn new tricks. We are supposed to do so. And the more we work at learning, the healthier our brains remain as we age. Learning, which our brain needs, always begets change. It is a natural progression. And maybe your progression won’t lead you as far “left” as mine has led me. But don’t be afraid to learn and don’t be afraid to change.
Evolve. Become better. Shift.