The Impact of Beliefs

The Snake River, winding through Yellowstone National Park.

“I would rather have a mind opened by wonder, than one closed by belief.” – Gerry Spence, trial lawyer who did not lose a case between the years of 1969-2010. In this quote, beliefs and wonder serve as opposite forces. 

When you look at beliefs by themselves, what are they? According to Michael Shermer, “we form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow,” quoted from his book, The Believing Brain.

Looking at history, beliefs are the founding blocks of humanity’s greatest and most tragic moments. Beliefs fueled Julius Caesar and the building of the Roman Empire. The single belief in freedom founded America. The belief in equality empowered a woman to say no to moving to the back of the bus. The belief in inequality fueled a war between brothers which split a young country in half; but, ultimately, the belief in unity made it stronger. The belief in blame and hatred enabled over six million  humans to perish at the hands of a dictator who believed in racial cleansing. The belief in health and medicine have cured ailments through the centuries from polio, plague, measles, mumps, chicken pox, and other illnesses.The belief in science not only discovered new planets, galaxies and universes, but also gave man the ability to explore them. The belief in religion provides faith, ethics and foundations for millions. The belief in peace founded numerous organizations and fueled an entire generational movement. John Lennon inspired millions with his music and belief in peace. This belief he died for, as many others have: Joan of Arc,  Dietrich Bonhoffer, Gandhi, Nelson Mandella, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, to name a few. Beliefs shape our world yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

So how do we lead with beliefs? How do we learn and find wonder when we do not share the same beliefs as those we serve? Wonder. Focus. Curiosity.

We are attracted to others who share similar beliefs. We seek experiences to further support our belief system. Beliefs provide foundations in our lives. Our religions and faiths are founded on belief systems. Our moral compass and the integrity by which we live, are rooted in our belief system. 

Joe Vitale, author of numerous books and programs, argues what we believe about ourselves and our world is what we will continue to get. He supports the idea that what you think is what you create. Through his own life experience, he has seen how his focus and movement toward what inspires him has changed his reality and continues to. Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, believes that by being aware of your thoughts you can recognize and then change limiting beliefs about your life. You, she argues, are the only one who can change your reality. 

Let’s bring this into the educational perspective. Isn’t this what we want to teach students? How often in student conferences do I say or hear a colleague remind a student that the choice is theirs? If they want to be successful _________ (fill in the blank, academically, socially, athletically, emotionally) they must put forth the effort to in order to grow and learn. Our beliefs will either allow us to look at our lives and choices honestly, in order to grow to become our best selves, or keep us stagnant. 

The line between belief and self-righteousness frequently blurs. As leaders, and as learners, we have to be aware of how much we rely on our personal beliefs when making decisions. When our beliefs seem better than the next person’s beliefs, we become self-righteous. Self- righteousness promotes judgement. Judgement leads to fear. Often our fear begins as more of an uncertainty in our own beliefs, than it is a criticism of another’s beliefs. But, it is safer and less risky to judge than to ask questions. If we already have the answers, then we don’t have to listen to anyone else. Our assumptions become truths with or without the facts to support them. 

Many of the harmful moments in our history, like the ones mentioned above, are the direct result of extreme, self-righteous beliefs. This judgement begins in a conviction. For example, as parents, we believe and see the best in our children. Our love for them can sometimes blind us. When I call a parent about a student behavior resulting in a consequence, and that parent reacts angrily to me about the consequence, I am reminded that this reaction is one rooted in love for his/her child. Helping parents understand that this is not a challenge to their belief about their child, but a guiding moment to help their child connect their choice to the consequence, often helps. Without our willingness to understand where this anger comes from, a learning moment can easily become a battle between egos, resulting in perpetuating anger and frustration for both parties.

Teenagers often test boundaries to determine what beliefs truly resonate with them- this constitutes the human experience. This is a part of how we define ourselves and our own dreams, limitations and paths. Making crucial decisions about what we want to study, where we want to live, who we want to call our friends – all are created by our own values and beliefs. When we first acquire beliefs we do so  because we have learned it from the adults in our lives. Later, these beliefs become ours based on the experiences we live. Our parents guide us, as do our teachers, as we develop the character and choices that form our own beliefs. We test these beliefs and change them as we grow into adults. 

According to Graham Lawton, contributor to Post magazine, beliefs are how we see the world and act within it.  “Taken together they form a personal guidebook to reality, telling us not just what is factually correct but also what is right and good, and hence how to behave towards one another and the natural world. This makes them arguably not just the most mental thing our brains do but also the most important,” Why is this? 

When we lead others and remain curious, we allow ourselves to wonder about beliefs we may not have in our own lives. We learn about the experiences of others; and often, I’ve learned that my beliefs about that person or that situation were simply wrong. I was operating from my own perspective; and while my view isn’t wrong, it is lacking the context and larger picture which helps me truly gain clarity. It is essential that if we are going to lead others to change, we have to be willing to wonder about their experience, their ideas, their beliefs and their values. Through this wonder, we learn. Yet this wonder also invites risk. We risk being wrong, and that can be scary.

Life is full of risk. We take risks from the moment we are born. We risk falling when we learn to walk.We risk heartache when we love. We risk failure when we try for something beyond our ability. We risk belonging when we speak our story. We risk being on time when we hit snooze. We risk missing out when we say no. We risk our perspective when we don’t ask and when we do. We risk our conviction when we listen to others. We risk our “rightness” when we seek to understand how we could be “wrong”. We risk conflict when we stand for our beliefs.

  As we travel this week together, let’s be aware of the impact of our beliefs and how they can open and close opportunities for us. Do we believe we are so right that we are missing a different picture available for us to see, if we simply wonder? When we do allow ourselves to suspend our beliefs for just a moment, to live by the quote of Gerry Spence, “I would rather have a mind opened by wonder, than one closed by belief,” what happens? 

We risk, and we learn. 

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