Monday, April 30, 2012

Inherent worth and achievement

I just finished reading a book that has had a profound impact on my thinking about human behavior. The book is called "Mistakes were made, but not by me" by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Since I am thinking about it, I decided to contribute some of my thoughts in response to the last chapter of the book. This chapter proposes to introduce a possible idea about how we as a society can get to a place where we can see greater achievement and less cognitive dissonance (i.e. excuses and self-justification) surrounding the bad decisions we make. You see, I think this is a pretty big problem. That is, I believe there is a general state of apathy among people regarding individual achievement in our society, because of our self-justification in defense of our bad behavior, and our beliefs may only be contributing to the problems we are facing. First let me begin by attempting to outline some of the problems as I see them.

We are a society (here in America, at least, and possibly in much of western society) that values achievement, but somehow believes that doing so must come with a minimum of mistakes. We tend to regard mistakes as bad. We oftentimes choose to see bad behavior (and the mistakes that invariably result) as a symptom of a problem with our soul. Many of us are taught, through our beliefs or maybe even intuition to some degree, that we are either inherently good or inherently bad. And while the teaching that we are inherently bad is not overt, it may be felt by those who do not receive the message as often or as loud that they are inherently favored. We attempt to condition our children in the belief that they have worth that is inherent due to their very nature. The evidence used to support this belief is the good behavior or favorable disposition of the child pointed out by parents and teachers.

This paradigm is especially pronounced in Mormonism where children are taught from a very early age that they are of infinite worth not because of anything they did or did not do (at least in the here and now), but simply because of who they are. Children are not only a gift from God, but they are considered gifted by God with talents and worth that is innate in them. They are further taught that the evidence for this belief is the fact that they are here. Because in Mormonism, the belief is that the people here on Earth are the one's that chose wisely to follow Jesus and the plan presented by Him. The polarization between us and "the others" (those wicked spirits that chose to follow Satan or really anybody that appears to be choosing to follow Satan while here on Earth) begins when we were told that, while we chose wisely to come to Earth, there was an entire third of the hosts of heaven who did not choose wisely as we did. We are further told that we are children of God, even God's in embryo, and that God didn't make junk. We were then told that our life here on Earth is designed to allow God to test our worth to determine if we can live up to His expectations for us. This further re-enforces the idea that mistakes are bad and to be avoided at all costs. If we make mistakes, our entire eternal glory/reward/life with God and our family may be in jeopardy.

I believe this conditioning may be damaging because if a child begins to believe that they have greatness inherent in their being (as many children honestly believe after being taught this as gospel so convincingly by their parents and teachers - I know I did) and that mistakes are something to be avoided at all costs (which seems to be the emphasis of the now correlated, authoritarian LDS church) this can result in a great amount of shame (as opposed to guilt, since guilt is focused on the mistake and shame is focused on the worth of the individual). This shame can result in a great downward spiral of shame that becomes more pronounced and damaging when further mistakes are invariably made. The reason for this is because once a child believes that they are not of inherent worth, their very nature and identity is questioned. I think children are better at questioning their worth than questioning the badness of their behavior.

Thank goodness that at least a concept of a savior to redeem people from the shame they feel is taught. However, this teaching leads to further dependence on the organization that is purported to represent the dictates/demands of the "savior" in order to receive forgiveness. Redemption from the shame cannot ever come fully, however, because of teachings that pile on the damnation and judgment (potentially to the level of compounding the effect - which is the shame - of all of the past mistakes if repentance is not thorough or complete to the leaders' satisfaction) once the same mistake is repeated. This can also lead to a general state of apathy regarding achievement. The reason for this is due to the following line of thinking;

I am of inherent worth (because my parents and teachers have told me so)

I know I made a mistake (bad choice or I feel bad)

Since I made a mistake, I must not really be of inherent worth but, rather, my inherent worth is now tainted and not really the case. I am inherently bad.

Since I am inherently bad, what is the point of even trying to be good anymore. I may as well just give up since I can never live up to the expectations of who people say I am.

The solution to the problem of focusing on inherent worth of individuals and the potential damage of the shame spiral that is likely to result, is either to focus on the savior as redeemer or to focus on the ability of everyone to overcome mistakes through learning and experience.

The difficulty I have with focusing on the savior as redeemer is the lack of personal responsibility for dealing with the consequences of one's mistakes. It is not considered a valid teaching in our society that others should pay for the consequences of our individual mistakes, so why do we consider it a valid teaching in religion? There should be an alternative to the idea of a savior as redeemer for those who see the problem with a reliance on this idea and therefore reject it on the grounds that it does not fit with their experience in all other aspects of life.

If the message we teach to children is one of, "Hey, everybody makes mistakes, it's how we learn and grow." and that mistakes are even a necessary part of learning and getting better, the line of thinking is instead;

I am going to make mistakes, it is how I learn and become better

I know I made a mistake, I just learned what not to do.

We all make mistakes and I am not a bad person because I made a mistake. Hopefully I can learn from this experience and remember the bad result the next time a similar situation is encountered.

I think this is a much healthier outlook and should lead to a lack of apathy surrounding growth in people and their potential. The support for this idea comes from the fact that the lowest math scores by students in Japan are higher than the highest math scores here in the United States. Psychologists wanted to try and find out why this is the case so they went to Japan to observe students there. What they found was that students there encourage each other because they believe that no matter who you are, if you work hard enough, you can achieve mastery of even the most difficult problems. They value mistakes and see them as an essential part of the learning process. Here in the U.S. I think we believe that success in math is a talent or something that is a gift from God and therefore that people either have it or they don't. When failure is encountered, we are much more likely to think that we are just not gifted in that area and we then have a built in excuse for giving up on it.

Of course, I cannot say where this mindset, of valuing mistakes as part of the learning process, comes from. Whether it is due to cultural or religious influence in the society in Japan, I cannot say. What I can say is that I believe this simple shift in thinking about our worth and abilities could go a long way towards solving the problem of apathy in individuals concerning their abilities to succeed.

I also realize that this shift in thinking may be more difficult in light of the theology of Christianity, especially as taught in the LDS church. I'm not sure how LDS can even desire to make a shift in thinking in this regard since there is such a built in arrogance towards those outside their circle of influence. They would likely receive such advice as coming from "outside" their revelatory chain of command or from "the world" and immediately dismiss such things as not valuable. However, even if the idea could be received somehow, there is an immense amount fear towards what might happen if children make serious mistakes in judgment. While these kinds of mistakes are possible, if the negative consequences of such actions could be highlighted in a constructive way and seen as a lesson learned rather than something that requires a severe confession and repentance process (which leads to further embarrassment and re-enforcement of the idea that inherent worth has been tainted) I think it could be more productive.

There is some good news, though. The good news is that children are incredibly resilient and have been shown to be able to overcome teachings that lead to undue shame. Children who experience trauma at young ages do go on to mostly live happy and productive lives. The other good news is that the LDS church does seem to be distancing itself from teachings that emphasize that young people today are more valiant (or were more valiant in the pre-existence), and therefore of inherently more worth, than those of previous generations (or races of people).

My fear, however, is that if belief in LDS teachings of inherent worth continues to be emphasized, it may lead to a place where ones outlook on life becomes somewhat twisted. I think this happened to me. I'm not sure exactly how to describe it, but I do feel that my life outlook became somewhat warped. Warped because I was somehow able to maintain a belief in my inherent worth even while I would engage in behaviors that I knew to be bad and then somehow believe that I could minimize the effect the behavior had on me. I did this by believing that if I could keep the bad behavior a secret it really would not catch up with me or have an effect on my worth. I was only fooling myself. I simply did whatever I had to to maintain the belief that I was special and not capable of being "really" bad. I think it is true that as adults we tend to believe that we never do anything wrong. We judge ourselves by our best intentions and others by their worst behavior. It is through admitting and acknowledging that we have made a mistake (and believing it is OK because we are learning) that we are able to eventually overcome the cognitive dissonance that leads to justifying bad or foolish behavior. It is not until we can do this that the damage cognitive dissonance causes can be fully overcome.

Essentially, to get what I am saying here we need to further define cognitive dissonance as I am using it above. Cognitive dissonance describes a state that occurs in our mind when we hold two competing ideas that cannot both be true. In my post here this would be 1. the belief that a person is of inherent worth and 2. the knowledge that they have done something wrong. In order to maintain consonance (consistency or integrity) our mind will cling to the belief that is more painful to abandon. In this case, we are assuming that it is more painful to abandon the idea that I have done something wrong so the belief that one is of inherent worth is abandoned and the sinful nature of the individual is embraced. This leads to the shame that I described, which can turn into a self perpetuating shame spiral.

What happened to me in this example is that I embraced the belief that I was of inherent worth and sought to minimize the fact that I had done something wrong. I justified my behavior by thinking that it just wasn't that bad. I believed that I could keep it a secret or that it was understandable considering my circumstances. While I continue to be very good at justifying my behavior as congruent with someone who is superior to others and of inherent worth, my loss of belief has caused me to have to reevaluate this idea. I no longer see myself as superior to anyone outside of the LDS church, however, I do now see myself as being superior to those who maintain belief in LDS theology. This is something I have only recently begun to realize and need to be continually mindful of. I suppose it would be accurate to say that I have an arrogance toward those who continue to believe in God and religion which is likely not healthy. I hope that this could be considered a positive first step in working to overcome this attitude. As I come to better understand how cognitive dissonance, and the effect of thinking about my behavior has on my outlook and beliefs, I hope that I can arrive at a place of enlightenment and transcendence. Apparently I still have a long way to go.

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