What Should We Believe In?

In 2004, I was introduced to the term “flip-flop,” an insult popularized that election year by one John Kerry — the chronically indecisive Democratic nominee. Eight years later, Mitt Romney wears this badge of dishonor; though make no mistake — the terms “somersaulting” and “flip-flopping” have had roots in politics for centuries.

And that doesn’t come as a surprise, considering our society has long valued strong leaders with conviction. Some would say Kerry’s flip-flopping lost him the election, which illustrates the consequences of not going balls-to-the-walls with your beliefs. He was confused and weak, and that seemingly made him unfit to lead. (While I hardly think changing your mind is a crime, perhaps doing so in the face of an election extends the question of indecisiveness into one of integrity and honesty. Maybe Kerry was unfit in those regards, though who am I to say?)

But the celebrating of those who are steadfast in their positions extends beyond politics: individuals who are passionate and confident in their convictions seem to be viewed as stronger, more intelligent, and more capable. They are the heroes in films, they are the ones who rally us to go to war, they are the people who we aspire to be. Someone who knows what they believe in, whatever that is.

Conversely, if you are someone who doesn’t live for the art of debate, who isn’t completely sure of what and who you are, you might feel a bit down on yourself for not meeting this standard. The people who seem to achieve the Western idea of greatness have a power that the “lesser-thans” don’t — the power to commit to an idea. The power to believe so strongly in something that they cannot be convinced or swayed otherwise.

I am, in this scenario, one of the lesser-thans. I operate on intuition rather than belief; if my intuition tells me something new because of knowledge I’ve gained, I’m open to embracing the new perspective — until more information becomes available to me, at which point I’ll undoubtedly change or “flip-flop” again. And I thought this made me undesirable or that I was failing to aspire to a certain ideal, but then I read something that changed how I view the strength of conviction.

According to David Cain, having strong beliefs is not necessarily something to be proud of:

Believing something is not an accomplishment. I grew up thinking that beliefs are something to be proud of, but they’re really nothing but opinions one refuses to reconsider. Beliefs are easy. The stronger your beliefs are, the less open you are to growth and wisdom, because “strength of belief” is only the intensity with which you resist questioning yourself. As soon as you are proud of a belief, as soon as you think it adds something to who you are, then you’ve made it a part of your ego… Wherever there is a belief, there is a closed door.

So are those with the strongest convictions really the people who should be emulated? We know on a base level that impenetrable beliefs aren’t always noble. Sometimes they’re plain scary, in the case of radical religion or Nazis or the fringe Tea Partiers or the KKK. But what are your strongest beliefs and are you willing to question them? Let’s think about something most of us have experience with, like monogamy. Do you believe that, when you’re in a relationship, sex with other people should be off-limits? Even though humans have the primal instinct to mate, even though you most likely know people who cheat, are in open relationships, are polyamorous, are divorced — do you still believe that monogamy is the healthiest way to be in a relationship? If you had the option to be in a happy relationship or a monogamous one, what would you choose? Why?

To someone whose identity is not at stake when we discuss monogamy, the happy relationship may sound like the obvious choice. But to someone who has built their life around the pursuit of finding their one true love, of marriage, of growing old with someone — entertaining options outside of monogamy, suggesting that monogamy is not synonymous with happiness becomes an attack on a belief system that has shaped the person; thus it becomes an attack on the person. This is what having strong convictions does: it causes religion, political views, love, morality to latently become a part of our personhood. And once that happens, it becomes difficult to acknowledge or listen to other perspectives because they feel like personal attacks on our perspective and subsequently, on us.

But asking someone to open their mind is hardly done nefariously. In the essay “It’s Okay That You Said Something Racist,” the author illustrates how the goal of calling someone out for making a racist comment is not a personal attack, but an attempt to teach or discuss another perspective.

And know this, you will get called out. I’ve called two people out in the last week and the stories are dramatically different. When eating at a Japanese restaurant, my friend leaned over to me and said something in a stereotypical Japanese accent. I shot him a look, and said, “What?” I think he replied, “Whoops,” and then thanked me for catching him later. Honestly, I can’t even remember exactly what happened because it wasn’t a big deal! It never has to be. It’s only when people are closed minded that fireworks break out. Later that week, someone used outright racist imagery to advertise an upcoming party, and those responsible we called out, albeit sarcastically. Instead of acknowledging and apologizing, or even throwing the snarkiness back in our face, the party organizers continued to feign ignorance, insult us and others, and defend their right to do racist things even in the wake of thoughtful, well-rounded commentary. Obviously, they didn’t know how easy and common this is. Instead they choose to freak out and be personally insulted.

Asking a person to rethink their belief system is not to personally attack them, it’s giving them a show of faith. It says, “I believe that you are capable of reason,” not “You’re an idiot and you’re wrong.” Questioning your beliefs, testing them, changing your mind, “flip-flopping” does not make a person weak. I’d argue that it does the opposite — it allows us to entertain various perspectives, which in turn allows us to grow wiser, more rounded. Why are we afraid of giving power to people who can admit when they’re wrong, who can evolve, who place value in learning and growth? Isn’t that preferable to someone who sticks to their decisions and worldviews ’til death do them part?

Nietzsche once said, “We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the way in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.” But we fancy our beliefs as infallible only when they are heavily tied into our identities. If those are the grounds on which we defend and argue for them — not logic or objectivity — are they worth having in the first place? TC mark

image – Shutterstock


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  • http://gravatar.com/nishantjn nishantjn

    Damn. Desire to comment vs hatred of this stupid commenting platform.

  • Alexis Carole

    Mmm. Not sure how I feel about this. I get what you were trying to do here, and I even agree with the sentiment in a lot of ways–I think that when you refuse to look at something from all angles just because you “believe” something else, you’re closing yourself off to the possibility that there might be more to know/a better way, etc. I agree that there should be less negativity associated with changing your mind.

    However, the examples you chose (marriage, and the quote regarding racism) and the way you went about it just did not work for me. I think you could have chosen to present the exact same point in a completely different way and it would have reached farther.

  • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/07/what-should-we-believe-in/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

    […] Thought Catalog » Life Add a comment […]

  • http://twitter.com/tr_sk_ys tres keys (@tr_sk_ys)

    I think our beliefs are grounded less in our logic or quasi-objectivity and more so our lives and experiences. We kind of live out the moral of the story that is our lives. But most people, I think, change their beliefs over time. I’m only 18 and I’m vastly different in my beliefs than I was at 12 in religion, politics, philosophy, etc. But I’m still kind of the same person. Ah, this was a great post. I’ll be re-reading.

  • http://theiiiv.wordpress.com chandlerstephen

    flawless, stephanie! maybe because it was already my belief. wait, do i have to rethink that too..?

  • Kate Massey

    Could not agree with you more. Similar sentiments from Scott Simon when Hitchens died, part of which has become my personal credo:

    “But I wonder if always making consistency into a virtue is wise for anyone. Why strive to enjoy a rich life, filled with the deep, transforming experiences of family, travel, learning, love, daring, triumph and loss if you’re determined just to cling to the same ideas that you’ve always had?”


  • Leilani

    awful. just, awful. Why write this? Why don’t we just believe whatever we want? Don’t be so in your face. No one here wants that. No one. no one. please.

    oh, and don’t knock the KKK until you’ve tried it. that seems a little close minded, if you ask me, miss high morals.

  • http://wellcallmecrazy.wordpress.com wellcallmecrazy

    The only thing I truly know for sure is that change is constant and inevitable; that would imply that I should never state that I know anything for sure!

  • 2nd mate on this ship of fools

    I think it is important to remember that people generally believe they are on the right side of whatever discussion about beliefs they are having. The world looks very different from various camps and even if on the surface it might seem like two parties are talking about the same thing, say, that mountain over there, from their perspectives that mountain probably looks very different. It is actually very, very difficult to get people to sincerely question what they believe in. In my experience, most people just feign open-mindedness (even to themselves) while waiting for a rhetorical or logical slip up by the other party.

    Even this article, for example, falls victim to sham open-mindedness. Can we really lump together radical fundies, nazis, the tea party, birthers, and the kkk all in the same sentence? Radical fundies truly believe that the fate of their very soul depends on a strict interpretation of and observance to the revealed word/teachings of whatever diety they subscribe to. Science, cause and effect relationships, and even reason itself are puny adversaries when Heaven and hell hang in the balance. What about the Nazis and/or the KKK, can they put in the same category? I’m not a student of either, but my layman understanding of National Socialism and the Ku Klux Klan is that they both were given birth by poor economic conditions and an even poorer interpretation of the cause of those conditions. But here is the thing, at least at first they both believed they were *right.* When times are tough for you and your family and you look around to see affluent Jewish businessmen seemingly insulated from the hard times, or when your way of life is demolished by a conquering army and you are forced to treat with your former property as if it had some intrinsic value other than the ability to pick cotton, can you really not see how those types of hateful views could take hold? Resist the temptation to anachronistically impose your morality on them–they were as much the product of the times and prevailing culture as you are of yours. Trust me (or don’t), you are nowhere near as open minded as you think you are. What about the Tea Party and the Birthers, can we lump them in with the KKK or radical Christians/Muslims/Zionists/Whatevers? Regardless of your thoughts about the merits of the Tea Party platform or the legitimacy of the Birthers suspicions, have you ever stopped to ask yourself this one crucially important question: Why do *they* think they are right?

    My own closed-minded hunch is probably not. Without any evidence at all, my inclination would be to dismiss you as merely parroting the prevailing attitudes of whatever has been bouncing around the echo chamber of the blogs you read. I’m just as guilty as you are. The dirty secret about so called ‘critical thinking’ is that it’s just a deeper delusion. How we could have started somewhere on the ladder of wisdom, climbed up a rung or two to a new vantange point, and yet still remain oblivious to the MANY rungs still above us is a mystery to me. Yet the overwhelming evidence is that is exactly what happens. Even cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, who we would think should be much more aware of the myriad of mental shortcuts and biases we are all subject to, find that they typically fare no better when subject to the very same decision making tests that they designed to point out bias.

    None of us are really open minded. But all of us could do a lot better job of at least pretending to be.

    • Svenry

      *slow clap* You have left me speechless.

    • http://www.facebook.com/luan.evert Luan Evert

      You could just have said something along the lines of ” to each his own” , much easier way of getting through to your target audience, and the message would still have gotten through…

    • http://twitter.com/KushagraUdai Kushagra Udai (@KushagraUdai)

      The basic problem with your argument is that you’ve made it personal. You’re essentially pointing fingers at her assumed hypocrisy with respect to the ideas she presents. Which is irrelevant. None of us are perfect, so while she might not be able to emulate the ideas she presents in her life, that’s no reason to discount the idea itself. I agree with your assertion that being human essentially makes us biased. It’s how we’re wired. But that’s no reason to refuse to acknowledge that we aren’t what we would like to be, or what we would consider ideal. We don’t shape our minds, ideas or opinions – it is a deeper delusion – that of any sense of control, whatsoever, of who we are. Yet, we can but aspire to be better. It’s all we live for anyway. To aspire to be better requires us to understand what we need to change. And it’s neither my place nor yours to assert that it is an exercise in futility. If we were to extend that argument, life is an exercise in futility.

  • Steve

    Seems reasonable. But it seems a lot of people these days believe things despite facts or evidence. That’s giving belief a bad name. And it’s also screwing over the rest of us who would like to get the 21st century moving.

  • KRose

    While I agree with plenty of this, constantly being open-minded to changing your belief system would be soul shattering. And at a certain point it becomes cowardly to consider yourself “open-minded” instead of holding steadfast to your beliefs. Otherwise it isn’t a belief… merely a passing fancy.
    Also, please don’t tell me that our generation is at the point of believing that monogamy and happiness are mutually exclusive!

  • http://twitter.com/heronkady10 Kady Heron (@heronkady10)

    Very interesting topic!
    Saving Thousands of People Hundreds of Dollars a month. Join the club today. Just click -> http://www.saversclub.us

  • Kassie

    Reblogged this on Grand Canyon State of Mind and commented:
    Had to reblog this lovely post by Stephanie Georgopulos (of course, every post she writes is absolutely amazing). This one gets you thinking. Be open minded, and when you stand for anything, don’t let those beliefs make you close minded towards others’ beliefs.

  • ek

    Great article, but political flip-flopping is often a much different scenario then the one for which you advocate. Being open to changing your opinions is one thing, but when deeply conflicting messages on many topics are being given to different constituencies, it often demonstrates that the strongest belief is in being elected rather then having an open mind.

  • http://ashesandstars.wordpress.com ashesandstars

    Reblogged this on Notes from the in-between.

  • http://ryanfrawley.wordpress.com ryanfrawley

    Exactly this. Exactly this. Especially in politics; isn’t a leader in a democracy supposed to enact the will of the people, rather than his own personal whims?

    Sometimes you meet someone you haven’t seen in a while, and they say, “you’ve changed” with a disapproving tone. I never understand it; you’re supposed to change. At what stage in life do you reach perfection, so that all change from that point is degradation? Never, obviously. Minds are made to be changed, and a healthy brain is one in which sparking neurons forge new connections with each other, rather than an ossified lump of fat rattling around in a prison of cherished beliefs.

    Great article.

  • duncansomerside

    This and you are perfect. Can we please become best friends and talk about these things forever?
    love, Duncan

  • Lisa

    I don’t have anything against atheists, but believing in nothing and being convinced that everyone else who do believe are wrong is more close minded than believing in something and the fact that there exists more out there.

  • Thought Catalog

    Reblogged this on Prazna Ploča.

  • http://aqualune.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/199-thought-catalog-catch-up/ #199: Thought Catalog Catch-up | sometimes the things we want are the things we can't have

    […] “Believing something is not an accomplishment. I grew up thinking that beliefs are something to be proud of, but they’re really nothing but opinions one refuses to reconsider. Beliefs are easy. The stronger your beliefs are, the less open you are to growth and wisdom, because ‘strength of belief’ is only the intensity with which you resist questioning yourself. As soon as you are proud of a belief, as soon as you think it adds something to who you are, then you’ve made it a part of your ego… Wherever there is a belief, there is a closed door.” – David Cain (What Should We Believe In?) […]

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