Letting Go of Distress about Other People’s Beliefs

Recently, a person very close to me (let’s call her “K”) confided in me her distress about an old friend of hers still being involved in the evangelical church. For context, both me and K. have distanced ourselves significantly from Christianity and evangelical culture. K. could not understand why this friend of hers still holds beliefs that are contrary to K.’s worldview. She could not understand that her friend’s life experience was extraordinarily different from K.’s own, and that her continued involvement in organized religion reflected this difference.

Time and time again, this seems to be a common flaw in reasoning among idealists: I’ve managed to see the light, so why can’t other people see it too? I, too, have been guilty of engaging with this fallacious thinking, both when I was deeply religious and when I began to break away from religion. The judgement of the beliefs of others is obviously not exclusive to religion alone. Many idealists I know have this perception towards other people’s political beliefs and lifestyle choices as well.

As I am an idealist myself, I think it may be helpful to address the common misperceptions we have about other people’s belief systems, and why it is important to adjust our thinking and learn to let go. This skill may be second nature to someone who identifies as a pragmatist or realist, but it is not second nature to everyone. If you never struggle with distress at the beliefs or lifestyles of people close to you, this article is not for you.

A few disclaimers: the following advice does not apply for people with close ones living an objectively-destructive lifestyle (i.e. marked by delinquency, violence towards themselves or others, or addiction to hard drugs). Those are extreme situations that require a completely different approach.

Additionally, this article is not intended to single out individuals of one particular ethical, political, or religious belief system. Unhealthy manifestations of idealism and the temptation to make others “see the light” is not unique to one practice, but can be found wherever a devout adherence to a set of principles can be found. I will be primarily drawing on Christianity to illustrate my points, as religion played a major role in my early ethical and moral development.

Part I: Your Experience is not My Experience

It is easy to overvalue unending stability over unending change, and vice versa, if it is all you have ever known.

When I was pursuing my Bachelors at a Lutheran college, I made it a point to be openly queer on campus. This was mostly in hope of finding other uncloseted LGBTQ+ Christians (and it worked; all five of us knew each other). However, it also had the unexpected consequence of opening up some wonderful and productive dialogs with other students. Rather than experiencing the prejudice I feared, many folks were simply curious, and frequently asked me questions about what it was like to be Christian and LGBTQ+. Some of the questions were rather silly (ex. “When you look at a man in a swimsuit or a woman in a swimsuit on the cover of a magazine, which one turns you on more?”), but most came from a place of good intent.

Conversely, I also found many folks who could not see beyond their experience to honor my own. This applied more to the actual practice of dating rather than my sexual orientation, as many folks in evangelical Christianity have very strong beliefs on how to romantically pursue someone correctly. I frequently chafed at their beliefs, as purity culture has had a much more damaging impact on my sense of self than homophobia ever did. I bit back resentment when a friend who had never been in a relationship told me that dating my first boyfriend was wrong and “leading him on” unless I planned to marry him. Having known him for less than a year, tying the knot was nowhere near my thoughts, and my friend speaking as if she were an authority in matters of love rankled me.

My hatred of purity culture is rooted in very deep psychological wounds caused by its teachings on sex and femininity, many of which I am still healing from. Naturally, it took me years to move past the anger I felt towards people immersed in its doctrine. Occasionally, I still slip back into this anger; after all, I am only human. What has helped me heal the most was learning to let go of the need to educate or “correct” people in the evangelical church. This was a lengthy and difficult process: how on earth do you learn to let go of the need to condemn people whose beliefs have hurt you?

The first major step in outgrowing my judgement was recognizing that the college-aged Christians I was surrounded by could only understand their values from the lens of their own life experience. Therefore, I realized, I could only understand my values through mine. Many of my peers had grown up in the same church their whole life, and the only religious upbringing I knew involved hopping around from church to church (aka “kangaroo Christianity”). Therefore, many of their beliefs were informed by only ever hearing the same things over and over again growing up, and many of my beliefs were informed by never having the luxury of clinging to the same beliefs for longer than a few years (or a few months, in some cases).

It is easy to overvalue unending stability over unending change, and vice versa, if it is all you have ever known. The reality is that both constant sameness and constant uprootedness have their perks and their flaws to belief formation. If, like me, you have only ever known change and the frequent construction and destruction of your beliefs, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing people who have had the same beliefs for decades as narrow-minded or ignorant. Likewise, if you have grown up in the same belief system your whole life, with little exposure to change, it may be hard to see frequent belief-changers as people who are grounded in reality. Neither perspective takes into account that there is value to both change and stability in belief formation.

Therefore, learning to accept my peer’s journeys as different, but just as nuanced as my own, allowed me to avoid dismissing my peer’s beliefs as grounded in ignorance or lack of experience. I was no wiser or more foolish than they were just because I had moved around a lot in the church, and they hadn’t.

Part II: Why am I the Way that I Am?

When we form our whole identity around our beliefs without valuing the role of change in their formation, we lose sight of why we are the way that we are.

I burned with anger towards the institutions where I learned about purity culture, and also towards myself for holding those beliefs. Instead of objectively analyzing why I had those beliefs, I mistakenly blamed my ignorance on a character flaw. I believed for so long that the secret to upstanding moral character was not having sex or acting on attraction outside of marriage; thus, when letting go of this belief, I accused myself of being a sanctimonious prig rather than a young adult evolving from one set of beliefs to another.

This, I think, is one of the biggest logical errors we idealists make: we refuse to see our beliefs objectively as beliefs. Our beliefs become the very fabric of our flesh, our genetic, our entire identity. When we form our whole identity around our beliefs without valuing the role of change in their formation, we lose sight of why we are the way that we are. When we lose sight of this, we lose sight of why others believe what they believe.

It’s tempting to look back at my younger years and say to myself, “Wow, I was such a fucking idiot!” However, there is little value in condemning our past selves for having the beliefs we had from the lived experiences we had. I was severely depressed and struggling with my religious upbringing in college, so the choices I made and the beliefs I had were simply the choices and beliefs of a mentally-ill young adult figuring life out.

See how much easier it is to examine our beliefs objectively when we do not condemn ourselves? Likewise, it is essential that we treat the beliefs of others with the same grace that we should grant ourselves — within reason, of course. As I must reiterate for the sake of the Wild West of the Internet, this is intended to apply to others who hold beliefs different than ours in non-extreme situations.

Although I am no longer a religious person, there is a Bible verse I’d like to share as a closing thought. It applies excellently to the principle of withholding judgement from the beliefs of others, and letting go of the need to control them:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” -Matthew 7: 1–5 (ESV)

Canonically, Jesus Christ was a Capricorn, so he did not mince his words in calling out the folly of judgement without self-reflection. By letting go of the need to make others hold the same beliefs we hold, it becomes much easier to reflect on our own life, our own values.

Are my actions consistent with the beliefs I hold? What times have I failed to see something objectively that deserved more objective treatment? How can I continue building up the principles I hold as an example rather than a doctrine that all must bow to?

Memento mori, friends.

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Blogger, poet, and lifelong learner based in the Las Vegas Valley, Anna Joy Tanksley (she/her) writes about the intersection of philosophy and mental health.