A Whackadoodle discussion about Nun’s on the Bus, listening deeply, reinforced beliefs, and seeing past the limiting beliefs that your community might be reinforcing.
She came to our tutoring session with less energy than normal. Usually, she was bouncing off walls, full of stories, and excited to trade ideas. But on this day, she barely managed a smile before taking out her geometry book and turning to her assigned page. We’d gotten through her math without comment, whipped through her English paper, and were in the middle of her American history, when I’d finally had enough.
“What’s got you so distracted this morning?” I asked her with a hint of irritation and a dash of concern. “I don’t think you’ve really taken in a word I’ve said.”
“Sorry,” she replied, rubbing her face with her hands. “I didn’t sleep so well.”
“Okay,” I said, and waited.
“You know how sometimes you say that a thought has been haunting you?” she asked finally.
“Yes,” I nodded, and waited some more.
“You know how President Biden handed out the Presidential Medal of Freedom awards last week?”
“Yeah, I watched the broadcast,” I admitted. “It was nice to have something to celebrate after a week of bad news.”
“Yeah,” she mimicked. “It was nice.” More silence followed until she finally added, “You know how one of the awards went to that Nun’s on the Bus lady?” she continued. “I forget her name.”
“Sister Simone Campbell,” I offered.
“Right,” she agreed. “A pretty great lady.”
“A very great lady.”
“She didn’t get to speak at the ceremony. None of them did, but later that night I saw an interview with her on a cable show. The interviewer asked her what advice she would give to people starting out. People like me.”
“And,” I prompted, getting suddenly curious.
“She said that she believed that we all simply needed to listen more deeply to each other. To listen deeply and answer the cries for help. I’m paraphrasing of course,” she admitted. “But I really remember that one phrase, listen deeply and answer the cries for help.”
“And that phrase is what has been haunting you?”
“No,” she shook her head. “It’s what happened right after her advice about listening deeply, when she added that we worry too much about how we look and what’s in life for us.”
“And that is what has been haunting you?”
“No,” she shook her head violently. “It’s the commercials that came right after her interview. Suddenly, I was watching all these thirty second ads telling me how I should look, what was important, and how I could get the most out of life. I watched them, and I started feeling sick. Then I remembered what you said last week about communities reinforcing our beliefs, and I really felt sick. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.”
“Something we talked about last week has been haunting you?” I asked, just to be clear.
“Yes,” she admitted in disgust. “You said, ‘If you really want to expand a mind, you have to get that mind outside of the community that keeps reinforcing that mind. Expanding a mind that does not want to expand is a full time job, and does not happen overnight. It happens one friendship at a time’.”
I could tell by the way she quoted me that the idea had really been haunting her. I didn’t quite know how to proceed. Thankfully, she did it for me.
“So I have been thinking,” she informed me slowly. “What about minds that aren’t really radicalized? What about minds that don’t even think that they need to expand? What about minds that are happy exactly where they are?”
“You mean like nearly everyone?” I asked cynically.
“I mean people like me!” she shouted.
“So what about you?” I challenged her without thinking. “You have finally discovered that the community around you reinforces a belief system that may or may not be limiting you. Good for you. Welcome to the club. So why has this discovery been haunting you?”
“Because I never thought to question my beliefs before. I never even noticed that my beliefs were nothing more than beliefs, but now I see how my beliefs are being influenced and reinforced everywhere, and I don’t really like how some of those messages have been reinforcing my beliefs.”
“So any belief in particular that’s bothering you?” I asked.
“Well,” she paused to think. “It’s like Sister Campbell said. I have been focused on getting the most out of life, but maybe listening deeply and answering cries for help is a better way to live.”
“I get that,” I nodded thoughtfully. “The beliefs that bug me are all the binary ones.”
“Binary?” she asked, curious for the first time in our lesson.
“Good versus evil, right versus left, female versus male, success versus failure, poor versus rich. Correct versus wrong. My way or the highway. Binary answers are always one or the other, nothing in between. Nothing in context. Nothing that suggests a middle way. I really hate binary beliefs.”
“You don’t believe in Evil?”
“I don’t believe in a personification of evil, if that’s what you mean. I don’t believe that evil is ever the cause of itself. I do believe that some actions create evil consequences, selfish consequences, thoughtless consequences, and truly painful consequences. But you will never defeat evil consequences if you blame them on some all powerful personification that only the word of God can heal. I don’t believe God would have given us minds and free will if he didn’t intend for us to use them for more than prayer. I believe that most evil is caused by ignorance, fear, or greed; and even those things don’t cause themselves. So if I want to defeat evil, I have to take on the causes that create those evil actions.”
“And what are those causes?”
“Not binary, that’s for sure,” I snorted. We stared at each other, both haunted now. “I think we need a walk,” I suggested.
She quickly agreed.
Have I mentioned lately how much I prefer tutoring to sticking to a school curriculum? With tutoring, there is always room for the much needed walk. We headed down to the bay access. We always head down to the bay access; where the ocean air unlocks your mind, where the soft currents bathe your feet, and where you have a moment to think without everyone in your community bombarding you with messages.
She immediately began folding up her pant legs in order to wade into the thigh high water. She slipped off the sea wall, and into the bay. I watched her carefully pick her way through the dead coral and onto the softer sand, remembering how much more life the bay had held during my childhood. She was inheriting a damaged world. I felt my heart breaking.
What could I do, except help where I could? Except answer a call for help? “So,” I called out to her, “What thoughts are still haunting you?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted, her voice hardly audible above the slapping waves.
“You don’t have to be sure,” I told her. “Don’t edit your thoughts. Explore them.”
She shot me a look, and smiled, “Strategy, right?”
“Yeah, strategy,” I smiled back.
She took a deep breath, and looked out onto the bay. “Okay,” she said at last. “I think I am upset because I see the problem, but I don’t know how to fix it.”
“Is that all?” I couldn’t help but blurt out.
“What do you mean, ‘Is that all?’” she declared angrily. “The problem is huge. The problem is everywhere. The problem is inside me, and I didn’t even know it until now.”
“I know. I am sorry. I shouldn’t laugh, but don’t you realize that you have already navigated the hardest barrier? And you did it on your own!”
“What barrier?” she asked carefully.
“Knowing that part of the barrier lives inside of you. I don’t think you understand how few people understand that. How few communities encourage that. How many communities prefer to blame the outside world rather than to look inside themselves.”
“So then what do I do about it?”
“That’s always the question, isn’t it?” I said. “How can I fix the problem?”
“You’re going back to your rules again, aren’t you?” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me.
“No,” I disagreed. “This time you are. Or you can make your own rules. Or you can take my rules and reinvent them. The question is, what do my rules suggest you do?”
“They suggest that I should stop whining about effects and look for causes that I can actually influence.”
“Good,” I prompted. “That’s rule one. What about rule two?”
“Rule two suggests that I need to,” and she took some time here. “I need to examine how my beliefs, and the beliefs that my community reinforces, shape how I perceive the world.”
“Excellent,” I nodded. “And who makes up your community?”
“My family, my friends, and the people I listen to.”
“Don’t forget the commercials you watch, the memes you share, and the authorities you listen to. The world is one giant community, and sadly the algorithms which some of those communities like to create are designed to reinforce beliefs that bring them the most profit, or the most energy, and not your best life.”
“What do you mean energy?”
“Number of internet clicks. Number of shares. Number of rioters turning out,” I shrugged. “Unfortunately for the human race, people are more likely to follow stories that make them mad rather than stories like the one we’re telling now. People love to get outraged by outrage. I even have an SEO app on my blog that recommend that my titles should include more controversial words because controversy promotes clicks. For some reason,” I laughed. “I keep ignoring that wisdom.”
“But beliefs are one of the causes, right?” she asked, interrupting my thoughts. “It’s like you said, ‘If you really want to expand a mind, you have to get that mind outside of the community that keeps reinforcing that mind’.”
“Yeah,” I smiled. “Sometimes you’ve got to get people off the Internet, and down to the bay.”
She looked out at the bay, and actually smiled.
“So you have nailed rules one and two,” I prompted her. “What about rule three?”
“Rule three is always the hard one for me,” she admitted.
“Give it a shot,” I suggested, rolling up a pant leg to join her in the water. “I trust you.”
“I know it’s about reflection, and that what people say is a reflection of the world they perceive, a reflection of their beliefs,” she paused. “So I guess that I need to, what?”
“What?” I repeated as I rolled up my second pant leg. “What do you need to do?”
“I don’t think that I need to do anything other than reflect,” she said unexpectedly. “I think that I just need to remember the rule, and use it to understand people.”
“And understand yourself,” I added, sliding down into the water. The sand was rough under my feet, but the water felt welcoming.
“Right,” she nodded. “It’s kind of like what has been haunting me all week.”
“How so?” I asked, adjusting my balance.
“Well, what I was saying about others was also true about me. We all live in communities that reinforce our beliefs,” her eyes narrowed again. “And that thought makes me want to jump right past focus, strategy, vacuum, process, responsibility, contribution, and get straight to rule ten.”
“Attraction?” I asked surprised. “Why skip to that rule?”
“Because I attract what I am,” she quoted simply. “As I change, what attracts me will change, and the people who are attracted to me will change as well. As my beliefs expand,” she continued. “I’m gonna keep feeling helpless until I connect with people who want to help me. People who believe more like I do. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what Attraction has been saying all this time?”
“Pretty much,” I replied carefully.
“So is that why?” she asked, suddenly intent.
“Is what why?” I asked even more carefully.
“Why the commercials suddenly made me feel sick,” she explained. “I mean, because my mind was changing, and I no longer felt attracted to their messages. In fact, I even felt repelled by them. Does that even make sense?”
“Sure it does,” I assured her. “And it’s bound to happen whenever you stay open to a unique worldview. In this case, Sister Campbell’s worldview.”
“Hum,” she nodded, and began wading in earnest. “But I suppose that I shouldn’t have skipped the other rules,” she mumbled to herself, as she began counting them out on her fingers. “I mean focus keeps people from distracting me, strategy helps me design a life, vacuum reminds me to budget my time, process keeps me from skipping steps, responsibility helps me to keep myself accountable.”
“And others accountable,” I tossed into the mumbles. “Don’t forget to hold others accountable.”
“Sure. Right,” she said, still distracted. “Contribution, entropy, understanding, persuasion, and indirect effort,” she finished counting as though proving a point, then looked up expectantly, “You see,” she added with pride. “I have been paying attention.”
“Bravo,” I sent her an ironic smile. “You can recite the rules, but have they helped you navigate your problem?”
“They certainly have distracted me,” she teased. “I can’t even remember what my problem was.”
“You mean the idea that has kept you up at night and haunted you for a week just disappeared into the waves?” I asked in disbelief.
“No,” she admitted at last. “But I think it will stop haunting me.”
“And why is that?”
“Because now I know what to do,” she answered, trailing her fingers through the water.
“Dare I ask?”
She smiled, “I think that I will get used to the feelings I get when I am in situations that make me uncomfortable. In fact, I think I might follow that feeling into a world that I could never imagine on my own. I think that I want to listen deeply to the world around me, and answer the cries for help. I think that I want to expand my mind, so I am determined to make a conscience effort to get outside of the community that keeps reinforcing my mind, and make discovering new ideas, new worldviews, and new communities a full time job. And I know it won’t happen overnight,” she looked at me pointedly. “It will happen one friendship at a time.”
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