John came to therapy as a troubled young man. In every way, his life was a series of successes. He was a kind, caring individual who was passionate about life. In spite of the emotional unavailability of his parents, he cruised through high school with exemplary grades. He graduated at the top of his class in undergraduate school and entered a law program. He completed his law degree and easily passed the bar examination. He fell in love with Kim, who was completing her MBA and was successfully working for a computer software company. They planned a huge wedding with the support and blessing of Kim’s parents.
John’s parents were dead-set against the marriage. His mother was morally outraged that John and Kim were cohabitating prior to the wedding. John was deeply disturbed by his mother’s attitude and made numerous overtures to explore the issue with her. Although neither parent attended church, they were adamant that living together out of wedlock was religiously immoral and offensive. Through a flurry of e-mails, John’s mother made disparaging comments toward John and rambled on about his fiancé being nothing more than a low-class tramp.
John’s parents were indignant and cut off contact with John and clearly indicated that they had no intentions of coming to the couple’s wedding. Sadly, their beliefs had rigidly risen to the level of taking precedence over their connection with their own son and future daughter-in-law. They clung to their beliefs in such a way that the rules mattered more than their most intimate relationships.
Beliefs can be defined as preconceived notions about the way the world works that lead one to rigidly embrace a value system to maintain living in a comfort zone. John’s parents clung to certain beliefs that reinforced a worldview that was inconsistent with most people’s reality. In other words, they believed in a belief, because they internalized it as an altered form of reality. Their belief kept them feeling safe until it came in conflict with their son’s experience. Now it served to sever their relationship with their only child.
We can see this cognitive dissonance (conflict between belief and experience), in many different situations. We have CO2 emissions pouring out of the smoke-stacks of factories, while reactionaries maintain that climate change is not connected to human behavior. We have clear-cut evidence to support evolution and yet there are those who espouse contrary theories to minimize their inner conflict.
Beliefs play a role in keeping life simple and explainable. Faith, however, operates differently. Faith is an unreserved opening to the truth wherever it may be found. Faith requires questioning, being open to complex challenges, and grappling with conflict and paradox. With faith-based thinking, we cannot always reconcile various pieces of reality.
People who cling to their beliefs rather than faith lack depth. They are afraid to step outside the confines of their preconceived assumptions. Such rigidity provides a false sense of security in an insecure world. To demonstrate integrity, one must let go of belief-based tunnel vision and transcend religious dogma in the pursuit of finding the truth in one’s experience.
An example of this is the fundamentalist Christian, who has believed all his life that homosexuality is an abomination to God. During early adulthood, one of his children gathers the courage to come out and tell his father that he is gay. How does this father reconcile his beliefs with the nature of what his son has told him about his sexual identity? This is a difficult spiritual and emotional dilemma. This father has several options to consider in making a decision about how to view this problem. Do I disown my own child for revealing his true sexual orientation? Do I admonish my son to seek reparative therapy to change his sexual feelings? Do I take the position of hating the sin, but loving the sinner? Do I let go of the need to reconcile my son’s identity with my religious beliefs, and try to enlarge my spiritual map to include the possibility that God’s grace may transcend my conflict? Faith always leads us to enlarge our vision of the truth and hold conflicting ideas in tension as we seek to pursue personal growth in our quest for answers.
Like John’s parents, beliefs tend to define us and our reality in a constricted manner. The rules become more important than our search for the truth and affect those we seek to hold accountable to them. Beliefs keep things clear-cut and simple in an altered reality that often doesn’t match one’s experience. Those who embrace such reactionary thinking are dangerous because they are unable to problem-solve from multiple perspectives and consequently have the potential to hurt people. They are unaware of the missing pieces in any argument. There is only one side to their story, and the believers embrace it wholeheartedly without doing due diligence to grapple with difficult problems and polar perspectives.
Note: This case is a composite drawn from my practice as a psychotherapist. It has been altered to protect the individual’s right to confidentiality and privacy.
James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC, CCBT is an educator, writer, licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He specializes in treating anxiety and depression for adults and children. He served as a teacher and guidance counselor for 30 years and has taught graduate-level counselor education courses for Chapman University. In 2005, he self-published Stepping Out of the Bubble: Reflections on the Pilgrimage of Counseling Therapy (Booklocker.com). His latest book, Troubled Childhood, Triumphant Life: Healing from the Battle Scars of Youth (New Horizon Press) is about the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult functioning. He offers solution-focused strategies to assist adults in overcoming the perils of the past.