Father Knows Best: Why do people push their beliefs?

I believe that when we choose to focus on a story about love, it makes it possible to find the grace that we need to encounter even the most intemperate and hostile folks.

By Martin Elfert

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Hey Rev!

Why do people think they have to shove their beliefs in everyone’s face and fight against letting people enjoy their own, personal beliefs?

– Laura

House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429139Dear Laura:

A while back, I listened to a man on the radio share his strategy for making driving a car more enjoyable. What he had come up with was really nothing more than an idea, a way of looking at the world. But, for him, it proved to be transformative.

What this person decided to do was to understand driving as a cooperative exercise. In other words, he chose to regard the other drivers, bicyclists, skateboarders, pedestrians, and so on whom he encountered as people who were on the same team as him, who shared the common goal of getting everyone to their destinations efficiently and safely. As a consequence, he said, he became far more likely to yield to folks hoping to cross an intersection, to make room for people trying to merge, to otherwise work with the people around him on the road. And he became way less likely to take ill-considered risks. All of a sudden, driving stopped being a competition. All of a sudden it became less stressful. All of a sudden it became less dangerous.

I share that strategy with you, Laura, not because I have adopted it and it has changed my own driving (although I have and it has) but because it has implications for life even when we are not behind the wheel. What that one driver did is what researchers call story editing: he chose to take a limiting narrative (“the roads are full of crazy people” or maybe “it’s everyone for him and herself”) and he replaced it with a freeing one (“we’re all working together”).

When we encounter folks who want to tell us about their practices, their traditions, and their convictions, we have a similar opportunity to craft a narrative. “They’re shoving their beliefs in everyone’s face,” is one possible narrative. “They love their beliefs so much that they want to share them,” is another. I don’t know about you, Laura, but I prefer the second narrative.

You may not be a Muslim or a Sikh or an atheist or a Christian or whatever. But if you choose to prefer a story in which such folks are living the way that they are because it’s how they find healing, meaning, belonging, and freedom, you might just find that your interactions with them are transformed. You might just find yourself listening and speaking from a place of generous and humble curiosity. And you might just find that your partners in conversation pick up on your openness and reciprocate it.

Now, to be clear, Laura, sometimes folks won’t pick up on your openness. Sometimes people will insist on argument. Indeed, sometimes the narrative that says that people are sharing their beliefs out of love will prove to be mistaken and even naïve. Sometimes you will encounter the philosophical or theological equivalent of a really aggressive driver. What do you do then? What do you do when someone threatens you with damnation, when someone starts scoring lazy points by making half-assed caricatures out of your most cherished values, when someone reckons that his beliefs should limit your rights? Even if such behavior is the minority report — and I’m convinced that it is — that doesn’t make it suck any less.

Well, here’s the best that I can do. I believe that when we choose to focus on a story about love, it makes it possible to find the grace that we need to encounter even the most intemperate and hostile folks. That’s because a story about love recognizes that such people’s behavior is symptomatic of profound pain. Such an understanding invites us to discover a reservoir of compassion and patience within ourselves that we not otherwise even notice.

I’m going to leave you with a suggestion, Laura. The next time that someone hands you an uninvited pamphlet or posts an uninvited comment on your Facebook wall, try asking yourself this question: What does this person and this experience have to teach me? You never know — that question might help you to write a whole new story.

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