A person’s capacity for change (pt. 2)

Writer’s note: this is part 2 of this essay, click here for part 1.

We have now covered everything in our list except one — belief, which is the thorniest one to deal with. Within cognitive psychology, belief is defined as a “propositional attitude”. The combination of beliefs that one holds forms a worldview (or belief system), which organizes the different experiences and subsequent actions that one takes. Our worldview is such a fundamental part of ourselves that it comes as second nature to us; it is the closest conscious phenomenon we have to our primal instincts. One way to think about different belief systems is through the metaphor of different sports. Many different sports use the same physical space, for example, a field. On a similar field, different games have different rules and objectives, which leads to player actions having very different meanings in each game. In American football, players have multiple ways to score, including touchdowns and field goals. In soccer, the only way to score is by moving the ball into the opponent’s goal post. In the former, players grab the ball with their hands, whereas in the latter, it would be considered a foul. The unique gameplay across different team sports also changes the types of roles that are in the team, with each game having its own set of player positions. Similarly, beliefs help people understand what is valuable, make sense of their actions in their society, and identify and perform the roles that they play. This view is summed up by a quote often attributed to C.S. Lewis, “We are what we believe we are.”

We can generally agree that, like cognitive tools, belief is not innate but rather acquired through experience. For instance, we are born with the natural instincts to eat, survive, and procreate, but no one automatically has the belief that they are a citizen of any nation-state. At the same time, however, beliefs are not only hard to change, they are often an aspect of ourselves that we cannot consciously choose, especially if they are inculcated in us since childhood. Beyond biological relation, a shared worldview is often what ties us to the closest people in our lives. Oftentimes, this shared worldview takes the form of religion. Given the all-or-nothing nature of many religions who proclaim their belief as the sole version of the truth, the choice to leave the religion that one was born into can have grave consequences as it often costs the leaver their family and community. Such conversion (or deconversion) stories have been told by authors like Tara Westover in her best-seller “Educated” and Shulem Deen in his memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return”. Belief systems stem not only from religion, but also science, ethnicity, nationality, and in this era of fake news, conspiracy theories. The choice of swapping entire worldviews is usually caused by pivotal and sometimes traumatic experiences that prompt a person to question their fundamental beliefs. A historical example is Leo Tolstoy’s mid-life crisis, which led to him writing his seminal essay “A Confession”. Which of us, however, has the choice to dictate what experiences we have in our lives? 

Moreover, people usually avoid having their lives upturned. That being said, I do think that people generally want to behave in ways that are mutually beneficial for themselves and their wider community. To do so, we should critically evaluate our beliefs from time to time. This is not easy and requires moral courage because we may have to admit that we were wrong. Drawing our attention inward and reflecting on our own lives is an important element of self-renewal and gaining agency over our own development. The cultivation of inner life, however, may be made increasingly difficult with social media and our digital devices constantly begging for our attention.

A common theme throughout this essay, therefore, seems to be that attention and awareness are crucial in facilitating change in the mutable aspects of ourselves. Even though the body and unconscious mind are resistant to change, the conscious mind is far more pliable — we can learn new knowledge and thinking approaches, revise our base assumptions which help to frame our world, and become better at interpreting our experiences and their meaning in our lives. I would argue that such changes are meaningful and can have a huge impact on an individual’s life and that of their society. We often hear words that describe personal change. Some Protestant Christian churches use the term “born again” to describe the conversion to Christianity. After recovering from a particularly grueling ordeal or brutal setback, we may feel like a “new person”. Needless to say, these are figures of speech, but we find such internal changes so significant that we liken them to rebirth.

It fascinates me how the plasticity of our mind seems well-matched to continual sociocultural change. When Darwin coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest”, he was not referring to physical strength but being “better adapted for the immediate, local environment”. Similarly, our social survival depends on the ability to adapt and/or respond to emerging sociocultural norms. Our mind, therefore, is a tool for us to resist premature obsolescence and remain a part of human discourse. However, just because we are able to change, does not necessarily mean that we do. The philosopher John Rawls has described our birth as a lottery. Our childhood conditions affect us throughout our lives and are the result of sheer luck. We should acknowledge how we often unwittingly become the people we are. To be an ally of change, both for ourselves and others, we need to practice compassion and non-attachment. Change is difficult — being kind to ourselves and others goes a long way in that struggle. By non-attachment, I do not mean to stop caring about the people you love but rather to give them the space to change. This applies equally to those whom we dislike. If we are too keen on sticking to an impression of a person, we are limiting their ability to change through our interpretation of who they were and how they ought to be.

Some of us may be struggling with who we are or trapped in incessant cycles of thought. Where there is change, there is hope. The belief that we can change gives us hope that tomorrow may be better because the inner conditions that we find ourselves in can and will change.