The Earth is the center of the Universe (and it's also flat). Morphine is good for teething. California is an island.
We laugh at these old, disproven theories and shake our heads at the fact that so many people used to believe them. But do you ever wonder what beliefs we hold today, in every day life, that could be completely wrong? Because without a doubt, they are there.
In our age of technology - or perhaps in any age - we tend to think that we have "arrived." Yet our culture is still full of philosophical and scientific maxims that, since we have long held them true, narrow our worldview where we think they add wisdom. We come to accept certain beliefs without question because it is impossible to question everything we are told or taught. Some things we hold true because they make sense, or because of the person or source telling us, or because we learned them when we were too young to be cynical yet. The danger in that? They come to shape our worldview and influence our decisions in ways we might not even realize.
There are certain beliefs that eventually people collectively catch up with, and there is concrete change. For instance, the notion that women weren't fit for "men's work" and were better suited for baby rearing and housekeeping were eventually challenged. These beliefs were held true for so long because they were rooted in some truth - yes, women are the only gender capable of bearing children and breastfeeding, so naturally people have come to view them as nurturers. However, the entire feminist movement was a push for people - men and women - to think outside of the box. Stop assigning roles. Stop limiting human potential.
That is the importance of taking stock of your beliefs, even the seemingly insignificant ones, and thinking about why you hold onto them. Allow yourself to change, be proven wrong, and discover better, more plausible "truths" as you test and retest the theories by which you live. Only then can we stretch ourselves and push humanity toward higher being.
It's about dissecting how you think. If you are able to dig to the roots of WHY you think a certain way, you will be able to discern if that belief is something worth keeping. Society continues to do this, and we are better for it, even when things get a bit gnarly. Of course, on a collective level, changing certain ideas never happens quickly.
Even outside of a social-political scope, our false beliefs permeate every day life. The food we choose to eat or not eat (who told us juicing was a good idea? Or cleanse diets?) The judgements we make when we look at social media posts (i.e. how we measure other people's happiness next to ours). The labels we put on other people that cause us to dismiss them (see side note).
Here's my challenge to you: take a moment every day and boil one of your thoughts down to the bones. See if you can't disprove yourself before you clutch onto that belief. Remember, always, that reality is multi-faceted, and our perspective is limited to the era we live in, our surroundings, upbringing, education, and so much more. This is the Human Way. Our worldview is sadly myopic. Swallowed in the vastness of our universe; limited to our small, contained bodies. And we are continuously trying to reason with it and make sense of what we see. Treat your every truth like a hypothesis.
Here are a few beliefs I think society should be questioning:
For the past year and a half, I have mentored a young man who spent much of his teenage years serving a prison sentence for arson and assault. He was charged as an adult at age fifteen and thrown into a state facility for five years. In there, he earned his GED, helped run programs in the library, and kept a low profile, one could say.
Psychologists say that when you go to prison at that age, you suffer from "arrested development." You stay in that teenaged state; you don't gain the responsibilities and experiences needed to transition to adulthood. My mentee has had some difficulties maturing - desperate to attain some of the laughter and sense of belonging that comes from being a reckless teen. And a part of him is still a 22-year-old guy, prone to making foolish decisions for the sake of peer approval, or for the sake of just feeling alive. The problem is he has less leeway than his peers who might have generous parents or good lawyers who bail them out of tight spots. One slip up with parole can completely throw him off course.
But his challenges run deeper than that. He comes from a family with criminal records; his brothers taught him to be vengeful; his father questioned his manhood when he wasn't willing to participate in his schemes. His mother scoffed at his choice to go to college when he was released. He inspired me at the way he rose above all this - getting a job, enrolling in school, fighting to see his daughter, taking an active role in his niece's and his sister's lives.
A few days ago, he was thrown back into the system - a mere three weeks before his two year anniversary of "getting out." His mother called me, left a message to call her back. I immediately worried about two possibilities: he was dead, or he had been re-incarcerated. It's unsettling that my mind jumped to these worries. Why should those be the potential outcomes for someone? Why is this a cyclical, acknowledged fate for young people living in poverty?
I guess part of me was prepared for this possibility. Sometimes I saw him spiraling. I knew he violated parole from time to time - drinking with his brothers, staying out past nine. But as a mentor, I can only point out his options and act as a guide. I can't steer him or make choices for him. I couldn't find him the healthy relationships he needed to thrive, nor could I snap my fingers and create a safer community for him to live in.
I am cognizant of the statistics: 70% of offenders will end up back in prison within three years of release, and these are largely due to parole violations. But I didn't think my mentee would become part of this stat. The odds were stacked against him, but he was one semester away from earning his Associate's Degree in Counseling. He had held a job down for a straight year, despite a horrendous commute and the fact that it completely bored him. He was gentle, smart, driven, compassionate, and would give the shirt off his back to a stranger on the street.
He was caught for drunk driving - not just a crime but a violation of his parole. He was sentenced to nine months. (He is 100% responsible for his poor choices, but just consider...how many people do you know who have had DUIs and gotten off with a mere fine? More than I can count). This is just before the end of his semester. Just before his summer internship. Just in time to alter his future in a big way. I don't think prison is the right answer for him right now; another spot on his record will make it even more difficult for him to find his way. The systems in place do not rehabilitate, and he will be even less prepared for the world when he gets out. Some say prison is good at creating better criminals, not better citizens. I hope that's not true for my mentee, but I know that the situation is grim.
I don't know what alternatives our society could create to make stories like this have a happy ending. I guess that's why I'm trying to get my Master's in Criminal Justice. For now, though, I just need to share this story so people can get a glimpse into this reality and realize it is the reality of many. If there were some way to change it, why wouldn't we?
I am gearing up to read the first round of edits on my novel, Without Shame. I'm realizing my skin has gotten thinner since college. Perhaps I feel more vulnerable to failure. I used to do four workshops in a week. Whenever it was your turn to get workshopped, you sat there silently for a half hour as twenty other writers critiqued your work. Even if they said things you disagreed with or they completely misinterpreted your work, you had to swallow it. There was no rebuttal. A writer's easiest defense was to ignore their words. But I took every comment into consideration, even if it was to better understand general audiences or the possible interpretations a person could take from my work.
There is nothing healthier than that for a writer. Criticism keeps us on the ground, looking at our work critically so that we might bring it closer to perfection. In fact, I often shrug off compliments, or I take them very lightly, because I'm worried they'll destroy me - I know that a big ego blocks improvement, and it blinds artists from seeing themselves and the world honestly. It's good to get compliments here and there, though; they might offer some reassurance that you don't completely suck. Still, we must always continue reaching for our better selves.
As I prepare myself to read those edits - which very likely will slash up this novel I've nursed for five years - I will keep these words in mind: "There's no good or bad. There's practice or no practice." -Based on an oracle Chinese saying and adapted by a modern-day American, my husband. (He's the lucky one who gets to talk me through this!)
So I'm getting in the mindset. Tomorrow I will read over my editor's comments, and I will take them in stride, and my writing will get stronger. I will put my novel before my ego. I will remember that writing is and always will be a practice - finishing the novel wasn't the end game for me as a writer, and neither was finding a publisher. It is the role of my profession to continuously improve.
Katherine Russell is an author, poet, activist, and freelancer from Buffalo, NY.