I Believe for Every Drop of Rain that Falls: Believing in the Time of Coronavirus
Believing, in the Time of Coronavirus
In my lifetime we have never before seen such a need for belief systems that are pliable and flexible in the face of new knowledge. In the time of Coronavirus, here in Colorado, in the Western world and in other countries we used to think we had little in common with, we are suffering a global pandemic and its ensuing panic, in part from a systemic lack of preparation and an inability to shift our beliefs in the face of disaster.
Nobody believed it could happen here. Too many people believed it could not. Some people believed it was a lie and a conspiracy. In spite of brilliant minds — such as Bill Gates in 2015, speaking to the world about the dangers of a pandemic to come — people believed it could not happen, that it was just an interesting expose of a possible future problem, a passing conversation among intellectuals that didn’t affect policy makers or the rest of us. Evidence and wisdom didn’t matter, these people would not enter the closed doors of believing it was all impossible.
About 22 years ago, when my son was in high school, he wrote a history paper about Abraham Lincoln. The paper portrayed a less than flattering view of Lincoln, who expressed different opinions to different audiences, contradicting himself for political reasons and prolonging the War unnecessarily. I was proud that Paul was questioning authority and entrenched beliefs that perhaps weren’t truths after all, but I didn’t delve into the paper. Instead, I turned back to my comfort zone, where Abraham Lincoln was the heroic, ideal American. I was set in my beliefs. Who knows what would have happened to those beliefs had I persisted in considering the possibility that my assumptions were flimsy.
It wasn’t that I didn’t respect Paul’s capacity to be a critical thinker. It was my own belief system that made me unwilling to question. I did not want to wonder whether the North had actually been just, fighting valiantly against slavery. I wanted to believe Abraham Lincoln was as close to a god as anyone could have been.My friend Tim recently told me “I don’t like getting to know my heroes”. Perhaps it was that. Perhaps I hadn’t read Paul’s paper way back when, because I was afraid to get to know Lincoln better and to have my own belief system badly punctured and upset. But this is a time in history when we badly need those beliefs punctured.
Like most Americans, I approached what I’d been taught in school unquestioningly. America was in the right — about its birth as a nation and all the wars it ever fought. Though I came of age during Vietnam and was troubled by certain smears on America: the racism, the social inequalities, the support of criminal dictators in Latin America in the supposed name of freedom, as the years wore on, the themes of dissent and conviction became foggy.
So when President Obama said, in response to the Sandy Hook massacre, “This is not who we are. We’re Americans; we’re better than this.” I agreed, carried away by wanting to believe in our goodness as a nation. I silenced the voices inside that knew Obama was wrong. In fact, it was who we were, and if we wanted to have the audacity to change, we would have to admit that.
Learning from History Or not
“I believe for every drop of rain that falls a flower grows/I believe above a storm the smallest prayer can still be heard/I believe that someone in the great somewhere hears every word.” I sang those words in a weekly assembly in my public (let me repeat “public”) elementary school. I never questioned the religiosity of those words. I never wondered why we were singing them in a public school in a country that, theoretically at least, separated church from state, or in my case, synagogue from state.
Hymns like these, and many other parts of our education, were handed down to us as nostalgia, a narrative constructed and maintained a belief system many of us adopted without even realizing it.
Optimally a belief system can sustain people at a given moment in time. But it needs to stretch or shift when there is an emergency that necessitates a change, such as the coronavirus epidemic we are facing now. Optimally when we learn from real science that there are climate change disasters or dangers of a viral pandemic, we can shift our beliefs that none of this is real and instead expand the scope of our convictions and our curiosity.
Belief systems can be insidious when not recognized as such. They can be implacably stubborn even in the face of urgent and catastrophic events or situations. Belief systems can dominate different layers of the human psyche and control the way we think or don’t, the way we see or we do not, the way we shift or refuse to. How we stick to our opinions, or our guns, literally and figuratively.
We often hear about how we need to learn from history, so we don’t have to make the same mistakes of the past. To truly learn from history, through, means questioning and thinking critically about the versions we may have internalized as absolute. As well, we have to learn from our mistakes on more than an intellectual level. Just as abused children very often become abusive parents, even when they swore they wouldn’t, we have to learn on an intestinal tract, so to speak, what beliefs are driving us. We need to learn in an atmosphere of tolerance for new awareness, without hatred for our neighbors or ourselves.
To learn from history, we have to learn about learning from history. We need practice self-examining and evaluating, and learn to question and be questioned about our decisions and ideas.. And then, in personal, political or intellectual arenas, we have to be prepared — and practice being prepared — for the answers we will find.
In order to learn from history, we have to stretch. We have to practice interrupting our own assumptions and being interrupted. If we can manage to question our own assumptions, we can begin to notice also whether we feel obligated and guilty towards those to whom we have pledged allegiance. This is more common an issue in examining our belief systems than we might tend to think. I’d like to share an example from my work:
I was working with Aaron, a man in his early thirties. His role as the oldest was to be “the good son”. His younger brother Eric was “always impossible” in Aaron’s words. Eric had a big temper and seemed forever out of control, either defiant, impulsive or both. Aaron, for the most part, stayed out of Eric’s way, and Eric called him “a pussy, teacher’s pet” etc…
When they reached their twenties, Eric developed a meth and cocaine habit and went on to do heroin. He did stints in prison for stealing and some time in rehab. As the boys grew into their 30’s, they hardly saw each other but the impressions on Aaron’s psyche were strong. They became part of his belief system. In effect, Aaron thought he was supposed to protect his parents from any upset he might cause, because they were “worried enough” by Eric. He came into therapy because his conflict avoidance had spread into his social life, and he found it an impediment to any authentic intimacy with a woman.
After some months in therapy, there was an incident with his parents where his father had been “talking shit” about Eric in a way that made Aaron uncomfortable. While he enjoyed the “best son” reputation, he realized it was also a burden. However, it still felt like his job to protect his parents and, as such, he didn’t tell his father how he felt and didn’t say anything to his mother, either.
When we spoke about the above, I asked Aaron if his conviction was that he was supposed to protect his parents at all costs. He said yes. I poked at this a bit and wondered out loud what would happen if he quit that job of having to be the good son. What if, actually, it wasn’t his job at all, but the whole thing was part of a belief system ingrained in him, one perhaps due for a change?
I mentioned how belief systems can be so fixed in our psyches that when we get new information, whether on external or internal levels, it can be hard to integrate it. He agreed. And this was only the beginning of his questioning not only the assumptions he had internalized, but the firm and stubborn beliefs they had become.
I Pledge Allegiance
Growing up, I was impressed by science and technological discoveries leading to what came to be known as progress. My assumption was that science could shatter the illusions of the past and correct mythologies that had hung on for too long, for instance that one race — Jews or black people for instance — was inferior to another. What I hadn’t counted on was the fierceness of emotional loyalties to one way of thinking that could overpower reason any day of the week. What I hadn’t explored on a deep level was just how much belief systems could deny any information that would run counter to its dictates.
I did not understand that what was known as science could be presented and used in subjective ways. Scientific data, research and experiments could be done by “scientists” dubbed as such by a particular regime, without the strict standards that good and real science would require. One example is the Nazi regime under Hitler that utilized its own so-called scientists, think tanks and institutes to make authoritative and allegedly factual statements basically designed to manipulate, without any intellectual integrity.
I have read and reread a book on Nazi Germany called The Nazi Conscience, by Claudia Koonz (Harvard University Press, 2003). A professor at Duke University, Koonz’ book is scholarly and at the same time compulsively readable. Its early premise is compelling in and of itself: the hatred, torture and ultimate extermination of so many Jews by the Nazis was not an absence of conscience, but a specific brand of conscience. The Nazi conscience was something put in place basically to protect the Fatherland and the purity of the German people from the moral and racial disease and depravity of the Jews, along with that of Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally challenged or in any way “weaker” people.
Early in the book (Pp 12,13) Koonz talks of Goebbels who compared subtle persuasion to a gas. He said, ‘The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrating the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.” Koonz continues, “To be credible, racial re-education had to emanate from apparently objective sources. Not propaganda but knowledge had the power to change attitudes.” In other words it had to seem like knowledge, regardless of the truth of the matter.
The moral dictum that Jews had to be eradicated was built up by so-called research about the power of global Jewry. Germany had its own think tanks that came up with anti-Semitic propaganda appearing as evidence and fact. Koonz writes on page 258, “As persecution escalated and Jewish Germans’ last hopes of rescue faded, the antisemitic think tanks, university institutes, and the Office of Racial Policy supplied fresh evidence of the Jewish peril gleaned from confiscated documents and new research… one casualty of war is a lower standard of credibility because people eagerly accept almost any information that helps them to make sense of the conflagration that has disrupted their lives.”
Propaganda, on dictionary.com, is defined as: “information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc., the deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.” And while we could say that many religions and powers deliberately stirred fears and promises in the loudness of their warnings and their predictions, propaganda as a profession is thought to have been founded by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis.
In the book The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations (Larry Tye, Henry Holt & Company, 1998) there is a fascinating account of Bernays, his beginnings and his influence in many public relation campaigns that could be also summarized by a sly and manipulative (isn’t that the point?) utilization of propaganda. Those of us raised on advertising might assume that people always smoked cigarettes, women too. But in fact, it was Bernays and his work with the American Tobacco Company that helped launch a campaign not only for the American woman to smoke, but for her to be forever ashamed of her love of food, and about being any size other than petite.
On page 24, Tye writes: “Bernays launched the campaign against sweets with his tried-and-true tactic of enlisting ‘experts’…by asking artists and photographers ‘to sing the praises of the thin.’ It was elegant and aesthetic to be thin, and to smoke cigarettes instead of eating sweets. On page 25, the author adds, “Not content to rely on the press or on the influence of experts, he (Bernays) also worked directly to change the way people ate. Hotels were urged to add cigarettes to their dessert lists, while the Bernays office widely distributed a series of menus, prepared by an editor of House and Garden, designed to ‘save you from the dangers of overeating’. For lunch and dinner they suggested a sensible mix of vegetables, meats and carbohydrates, followed by the advice to ‘reach for a cigarette instead of dessert’.”
The list goes on. It runs the gamut and includes selling the public on American foreign policy of supporting dictators in Latin America as well as selling war in the Persian Gulf. We may think that now is the era of fake news but Bernays championed campaigns that constantly attempted to dupe the American public at large. And to seduce Americans to pledge allegiance to hating each other before questioning the powers that be who gain advantages by keeping us divided from one another.
One of the great casualties here, can be for just about any of us, questioning our assumptions for real. Our loyalty to any one thing or belief or person, no matter what the questions we are asked to consider, can remain unbudgeable. After a time, we can stop knowing we are manipulated, thinking we are way too sophisticated. Not so, I’m afraid.
Being Right, Hating and Blaming at all Costs?
In my own writing I have emphasized our working on the shadows, the places where we bury the emotions that we reject out of fear, disgust or the prejudices we have internalized from the people in the institutions that have taught us our beliefs. One example of this is the former white supremacist Christian Picciolini, who has gone on to help people strangled by hatred, exit the endless vicious cycles and see a way to more solid and caring self-esteem. A good point that he makes in his book,
Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism (Hachette Books, 2020) is: “Over time, with space for self-reflection, hatred for others often reveals itself as the projection of gaping deficits of love or respect for oneself.” (p.136)
I am beginning to feel, also, that to shift many of us out of our hatred, aversions and detachment, more of us have to be compelled and curious enough to question the assumptions of our belief systems. In addition to being helped to integrate the good and bad in our emotions, so we don’t have to project unwanted feelings onto others, we can move to consider how those emotions help perpetuate the stubbornness of our beliefs.
To make things better and more realistic, it seems, would be to give up simplistic blame and simplistic odes to a past which is not as perfect as it might be in our imagination. It would also mean becoming skeptical about odes to an immediate radical revolution that might well skip over the steps we need to allow for more stable change.
Eric Hoffer, in his book The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Harper Perennial, 1951) illustrates the dangers of blind following in the following quotation. On page. 80, he writes: “It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence…And it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him.
Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truth it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from himself and the world as it is.”
Notwithstanding that which comes before, I do believe that people can change. I have seen it happen, been witness to it and sometimes been a participant in that change. I believe I can change because I have done so even when I thought it was impossible. I also believe that change can be excruciatingly hard and that we need to understand what lives inside the resistance to it. In fact, it is human nature to resist that which doesn’t fit our established beliefs, convictions and habits. As such it is always important to respect and to tackle this human tendency to be wary of new ways of seeing. The reasons for resistance have their own stories and meaning and they can’t be underestimated or ignored.
Often in times of uncertainty people go back to certainty, even if it is a kind of nostalgia or a kind of addiction — wanting to go back to a fantasy of what was rather than the complexity of the actual past or the actual present.
To want the truth even if it is inconvenient and does not provide absolute certainty can be a hard choice to make. For me, it is often appealing, because I find walking on eggshells and making believe, tiring. I find the truth annoying too but releasing as well.
I go back and forth in my beliefs and in my hopes. Fundamentally I am an optimist, sometimes I think because I’d make such a terrible pessimist.
I hope more people will be open to questioning their beliefs as the facts about coronavirus come in louder and more clearly. I hope to be in communication with more and more people who feel questioning our belief systems can be life-saving.
Even though as of now I don’t quite know what to believe.
#coronavirus, belief systems, propaganda, Naziism, Abraham Lincoln