When Beliefs Change

Courtesy of blogs.uw.edu

By Tanner Weigel, Staff Writer

The Amazon Video series The Man in the High Castle explores a world in which Axis powers have prevailed in World War II. In this scenario, Japan now occupies the Western United States, and Nazi Germany has taken control of the East. This concept alone is interesting in its own right, especially for those interested in history and foreign affairs. But what caught my attention perhaps more than this geopolitical intrigue was a smaller storyline following the family of John Smith, an American who has risen to become a very high-ranking Nazi commander in the U.S.

This series explores a world in which the victorious Nazis can actually implement their worldview. One of the more horrid aspects of this ideology is the forced euthanization of the terminally ill, for in the ideal Nazi world, only those who can fully dedicate both body and mind to the Reich have worth in staying alive.

John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell, in “The Man in the High Castle.” Courtesy of parade.com

Smith lives the ideal life within the German Reich. Beside his professional success, he presides over a traditional nuclear family, with three upstanding children and a wife, Helen, who keeps their beautiful Long Island home running in perfect shape. Following in his footsteps, Smith’s son Thomas is part of a Boy Scout-like youth program for the future leaders of the Reich.

Smith, who has gone from a citizen of the defeated to a leader of the victors, can now arguably claim a very privileged life. His world is soon rocked, however. After his son Thomas has a routine physical, the doctor pulls Smith aside to let him know that Thomas actually has signs of a very serious degenerative disease that has no cure. To add to the Smith family’s grief, then, is not just the prospect that Thomas will surely pass away, but that the State mandates that it occur as soon as possible.

Now, this is an extreme, fictionalized scenario. But that is perhaps why it so impacted me. John Smith has given himself over to an ideological cause, and may even be a true believer at this point (you should watch the series and judge for yourself). But when the abstract tenets he holds close affect his own family negatively, he suddenly faces a very real quandary of how to respond. And the internal dilemma is debilitating (those who wish to follow the storyline further will see the ends to which Smith goes to save his son while still supporting the Reich).

Can you think of moments in your own life when a deeply held value was challenged? Religion and spirituality immediately come to mind as realms where beliefs are challenged most vigorously, especially in this digital age where individuals can access viewpoints that aren’t necessarily shared by those with whom they associate most often (such as parents). What happens, for example, when a devout Evangelical Christian boy grows up to realize he is gay? What about a life-long Catholic (or member of any denomination for that matter) who is faced with the specter of impropriety among clergy?  These are painful, impactful events that cause an individual to question deeply held values. I keep saying “deeply held” because they are sincere in their beliefs. The cognitive dissonance that results from these dilemmas, again, can be debilitating.

I have highlighted crises of faith, but the dimensions of belief cross into all sorts of social, cultural, political and economic terrain. What happens when I’ve voted Democratic in U.S. elections because that’s the party my parents support, but suddenly I find myself questioning the Democratic party platform? What if I rail against government spending and entitlements, but then suddenly find myself in need of unemployment benefits? Abortion is one issue where believers on the extreme ends of the spectrum often subscribe to very rigid, inflexible ideas: on one end, life begins at conception and abortion is tantamount to murder; at the other end, abortion on demand at the latest stages of pregnancy is permissible. In fact, I don’t really know of people who (openly) discuss a middle ground to this very contentious issue.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan (R) and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (L) were political opponents, but their relationship hearkens to an age of healthier, more respectful politics. Courtesy of politico.com

To be sure, we subscribe to ideas, ideologies and belief systems precisely because they give us broad frameworks within which we can more easily organize our lives. It would be exhausting to have to reevaluate our beliefs every passing moment of the day. What I worry, however, is that in the very polarized times in which we live, we will be forced more and more to stick with one idea (at least publicly) for fear of being branded hypocrites, or fence-sitters. Just look at political primaries. Opposition researchers love to dig up old soundbites where politicians espouse beliefs anathema to their party 15 years later.

What I suggest, then, is that we need to learn how to be more understanding and empathetic when those around us face changes in their outlook on life. In fact, we should celebrate the process by which someone can research an issue in good faith, analyze their beliefs, and come to a more nuanced, vibrant belief system. I have mentioned when belief crises can come from traumatic, or negative circumstances. But they certainly can be the result of positive circumstances as well. I encourage you to read a story from NPR that chronicles the efforts of an African-American man over the past 30 years to convince members of the Ku Klux Klan to renounce their racist ways.

I will acknowledge that some belief systems are widely regarded as outside of what decent people would espouse (racism, for example). But in general, when we disagree with others, I hope we would try to befriend them rather than brand them as adversaries. I fear that we live in a society that is quick to point fingers and revels in shaming one another. I want to live in a society that allows for generous debate, the free flow of ideas (even unpopular ones), and allows for people to evolve on issues without being branded as hypocrites. Instead of finding satisfaction in the “told-you-so” moment of seeing someone come around to your side, let’s welcome them with open arms and acknowledge that beliefs can, and do, sincerely change.

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