Fundamentalism, be it religious, political, or any other kind all share one precept—believers are right, everyone else is wrong, and any and all questions are answered within the belief structure. If questions can’t be answered within the belief structure, the questions aren’t valid. Dialog is impossible because there is no doubt. Their truth is THE truth and everything they know or experience supports this. Since many fundamentalists grow up in family and social situations where there is no diversity of thought or experience. Their world is THE world.
Judie Fein wrote a piece for Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-is-trip/202101/why-you-cant-change-anyones-political-opinions about the impossibility of changing someone’s political beliefs, but the same is true for all deeply held beliefs, which give structure and meaning to the believers’ life.
So, is changing someone’s belief impossible? No, but the best, perhaps only way for someone’s belief to change is for the person to experience a transformative event in their lives, and even then, it usually doesn’t happen quickly or easily. The occurrence, which must be life-changing, might be a family confrontation, cataclysmic illness, leaving family to go to school or one’s hometown for work, or experiencing a powerful contradiction in what was formerly assumed—all changes where the person meets people whose ideas and experiences differ radically from her/his own, discovering that the world is profoundly different from the one in which he/she grew up or live in. Lately, relatives of people espousing hate-filled beliefs have contacted groups like Parents for Peace, asking for help. The process of shifting hate-filled violence to being part of a caring community takes time, listening without judgment, building trust, and above all, the person’s readiness to participate in the process.
My experience with a strongly engrained belief is benign compared to hate-filled beliefs, but even so, it was difficult to change. I learned early on not to ask for help, that it could be dangerous, even life-threatening. My father often told me, “You’re strong, you can manage,” and mostly I did. But when I was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia it became impossible for me to “manage.” When I came home from the hospital, I wasn’t strong enough to take out the garbage. And yet, even when I knew I had to ask for help, I did my best to avoid it. One big problem was that I lived 2 ½ hours from the cancer treatment center, too long a drive for me to do by myself. I hated having to ask people to drive me—at first, once a week, then twice a month, then every three months—for years, which meant asking a lot of people so as not to wear out my welcome, as well as figuring out ways to thank them. One day, in despair about having to ask for driving help, I searched for a way to get to the treatment center by myself. I flew from an airport in Wilmington, DE to an airport in Baltimore, MD. A driver from the treatment center picked me up. After treatment, which included five bone marrow biopsies on each side of my sacrum, I wanted to go home. I needed to go home. I didn’t care about anything except going home. The medical people told me this was not only medically unwise, a hurricane was predicted. The medical staff told me to stay overnight, that I could go home in the morning when flights resumed. Their arguments were sensible and reasonable, yet all I could think about was going home. Nothing anyone said changed my mind. So, despite the staff’s obvious disapproval, a driver took me back to the airport in Baltimore. And, as predicted, a hurricane grounded all flights. I sat in a chair in the waiting room. A woman passing by told me blood was oozing on to the floor. Embarrassed, I thanked her, wiped up the blood with my dark skirt and went into the bathroom. Blood was seeping from the biopsy wounds. I staunched them as best I could and put paper towels on the chair. When the hurricane passed, my scheduled flight was permanently cancelled and my new flight was routed to Philadelphia, PA. I was beyond caring about changes. At least I was on my way home and could take an airport shuttle home. Once the plane took off, a flight attendant noticed there was blood on the back of my seat and gave me a towel to wipe it up. I pressed my back against the chair as hard as I could to staunch the bleeding. After hours of difficult traveling, when I finally got home, I flopped into bed, relieved my ordeal was over, that is until I needed to use the bathroom. When I got up out of bed, I was so dizzy from loss of blood I had to crawl to the bathroom. This was when I finally accepted there were times when I had to ask for help, that this was not dangerous, nor did it mean I was an incapable person.
What would it take to change your belief?
Nancy King was hosted by the Santa Fe Public Library in an online author event to share her stories, some of which can be found in her memoir, Breaking the Silence. She gave a behind-the-scenes peek at how her memoir unraveled from the images in her head and answered some hard-hitting questions about coping mechanisms, forgiveness, and the path to healing.
The following story illustrates why I think the question is: How do I respond to violence?
The Son who wanted Revenge (Buddhist)
There was once a king who attacked a neighboring country, killing the king and queen and many of their people. The king could not make himself kill the baby son of the couple and took him home to raise as his own son, a prince. The child grew up feeling loved by the parents he thought were his birth parents. Yet as he grew older the prince heard whispers and murmurs about a long-ago battle, about a baby boy rescued. In time, he confronted an old courtier and asked about the long-ago battle. At first the old man refused, but the prince persisted. “Tell me what you know,” he pleaded. In time, the old man told him how the king had attacked the neighboring country, that the man he knew as his father was the king who murdered his parents.
The prince was filled with rage and decided it was his duty to kill his adopted father. He made and discarded many plans until he created one he knew would work. Every afternoon his adopted father sent his guards away and took a short rest. The prince sharpened his sword and prepared to act. The next afternoon, when he saw the king sleeping soundly in his royal chair, the prince moved behind the chair, lifted his sword and . . . Try as he might, he could not bring himself to lower the sword.
The king awoke suddenly and saw his son with the sword raised. “Why do you have a sword in your hand?”
“I know you are the man who murdered my parents. It is my duty to murder you, to avenge my parents’ deaths. But, to my great shame, I am unable to bring down my sword.”
The king told his son to put the sword by his chair and sit beside him. “You have acted wisely and with compassion. Had you killed me my other sons would have felt it was their duty to kill you. When you have sons, they would feel it their duty to kill those who killed you. By being willing to lower the sword, who knows how many lives you saved today?”
I share this story because it reminds me; we have choices. We can choose revenge and continue the cycle of violence or we can choose to do what we can to stop the violence, by deciding not to kill or maim. It takes courage and wisdom and emotional strength to resist taking revenge, which might feel good in the moment, but doesn’t bring back those who are dead.
How we react to people around us makes a difference. When I was 19, I was hired to be a recreational therapist in a large mental hospital, in charge of a building of 300 women. I knew nothing about mental illness and received no training prior to beginning work. A chance encounter with an attendant in charge of a building housing violent women, who asked me to work with her patients, was a request I didn’t know how to say no to. I was frightened. I knew the previous recreational therapist working with the violent women had been beaten up so badly by patients she was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries. I didn’t know why they beat her up. I didn’t want to find out. I decided I would treat these “violent” women exactly as I did the patients in my building, as if they were healthy—whatever that meant, treating them with respect and kindness. The women responded with gratitude, letting me know how thankful they were to be out with me. I never felt threatened. I was never hurt.
Much of the violence in the world is beyond our control. What is in our control is how we choose to live. Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence. Only lovingkindness—person to person—can stop the seemingly endless cycle of violence.
What is your response to violence?
"Early 2000s photo of mid-1980s computer" by Matthew Paul Argall via Flickr.
Years ago, when I taught dance, people thought I was very creative because my students danced to the sounds they made with their voice and body. The truth was I couldn’t be bothered carrying around phonographs or tape recorders. I liked to travel light.
In 1985 I came home from a hospital in London, and after being unable to work for eight months, discovered that in my absence the university administration had mandated all faculty have computers in their office. I chose to buy the cheapest one available—one or two RAM—that cost four thousand dollars, of which the university paid two. Newly diagnosed with leukemia, I barely made it through teaching. There was no way I could attend computer classes. Just learning to turn the computer on and off left me exhausted. I eventually figured out the bare necessities by trial and error, mostly error. All too soon I realized I also had to buy a computer for home use, which only complicated the situation. What I did at home had to be copied to a floppy disc to be transferred to my university computer. Thank goodness for the IT Department who translated the hieroglyphics on my screen to readable words. Thank goodness for students who took pity on me and either came to my office or my home, half an hour drive from the university, to help me untangle messes of my making, who patiently taught me how to use the university supported software. Thank goodness for the students who took my floppy discs to the university and printed out the pages of my PhD thesis and kindly corrected printing mishaps. I expressed my gratitude by making meals, cookies, and editing papers. Thank goodness for the IT Department who found and eliminated the virus I acquired while teaching in Hungary. Thank goodness for the students who helped me upgrade and learn to use the constantly changing software so I could keep up with university supported programs. Thanks to their endless patience I learned to use email and to cut and paste. This felt like a major triumph.
I moved to Santa Fe where I no longer had student or IT Department support. I had to find an internet provider and create a new email address. When I inadvertently eliminated all my emails, I took my laptop to a man everyone said was a genius. He screamed that I was incompetent—and worse. He recovered my emails. I left, never to return. I eventually found a person who’d come to my house to deal with computer issues, but sometimes I didn’t even know how to describe the problem.
Fast forward to the rise of social media. I tried. Using it gave me a headache. I decided I didn’t need to be on Facebook or any other site. I would have cancelled Facebook but I didn’t know how. I hired various people to help publicize my work, which cost a lot of money and produced little or no results. I convinced myself, which wasn’t difficult, that I could live without social media.
Now I have an author coach. She redesigned my website and produced a Zoom book launch. Our regular weekly Zoom meetings cover a variety of issues and subjects leading to thoughtful, relaxed conversation. Until, that is, she suggested I do Facebook. Involuntarily I covered my face with my hands and put my head on my desk. She saw my body reflect my distress. It remains to be seen whether my brain—willing to try using Facebook—or my body—unwilling to even consider the idea, gets to decide. In the meantime, she hosts Facebook for me, then reports responses. I pay for her time and knowledge. It’s a deal!
Walking in the mountains.
Walking on a path.
In the forest.
My feet finding their way.
My body knowing what to do.
Walking in the woods.
My spirit/body/mind knows pain and grief.
My spirit/body/mind knows violence and cruelty.
My spirit/body/mind knows disconnection.
My spirit/body/mind knows healing.
Walking on the earth.
Hearing birds call to one another.
Finding stone hearts on frozen ground.
Sending a message of love to my heart.
I am comforted.
For most of my life, if someone asked how I was, I automatically responded, “Fine.” I didn’t trust that anyone wanted to hear about dealing with lifelong depression or a chronic blood cancer that periodically caused me to be out of remission. This left me feeling lonely, but I remembered my father’s words from the time I was old enough to understand them, “You’re strong, you can manage.” In my family, talking about feelings was taboo. The few times I tried I was told: It’s all in your imagination.” I coped by doing what I could to take care of myself. I disassociated—body from mind. I lived like a horse with blinders, paying attention to what was directly in front of me. Managing.
Coping mechanisms often have a shelf life. What saves us at one time can cripple us as we change and grow. Recognizing this is difficult. Changing is harder. After I turned 80, and did a vision quest, I realized I wanted to talk about my life honestly, depending on who asked. I didn’t want judgment, unasked for advice, defensiveness, or the person to “fix” my problem so they could feel better.
It took a while to learn how to talk about my inner life. I discovered the analogy of the weather report—this is what’s happening at the moment. I developed friendships with people who wanted to know. They listened patiently as I described what I was feeling as best I could. They didn’t try to “fix” me.
I do the same. In a conversation, I listen. I ask if they want to know what I’m thinking or feeling about their situation. I let them know I care, that I want to know what their life is like. As a result, I no longer feel emotionally isolated. Friendships have deepened. I feel known. I know I’m making progress being more honest with my thoughts and feelings when a friend said recently, “I love you even when you make mistakes.” Imagine that!
It was early morning in late December 2013. Snowing. Cold. I had to be at the hospital for another round of cancer treatment at noon. The treatments were long, leaving me with a sore arm, no interest in food, and very tired. The holiday season of cheer had left me feeling depressed, hopeless, and helpless. The treatments had been going on since early October. I knew the only thing that would help me feel better was to be in the mountains, despite the weather. I called a friend. “Ken, would you drive me up to Big Tesuque so we can hike up to Aspen Vista Road?”
“Nancy, it’s cold. It’s snowing!” His incredulity was palpable. “Besides, if I remember correctly your treatment starts at noon.” It was like couch potato talking to ultramarathoner. Out of his imagination, out of his comfort zone.
All I knew was what I badly wanted. Trying to use my most persuasive tone of voice, I practically begged. “I need to be in the mountains. The hike’s only a mile each way, we can easily do it if you’ll drive me to the hospital afterward.”
He offered reasons why it wasn’t a good idea. I countered each of them with, “I know, but . . . “
After a few minutes there was a silence. A sigh. “Okay, if it’s that important to you, I’ll pick you up in half an hour.” I started to thank him but he’d already hung up. I got dressed—long underwear, sweater, insulated pants and jacket, wool hat, neck gaiter, mittens and handwarmers. I greeted him with a grin. He shook his head. “Nancy, I hope you know this is totally crazy. I don’t know why I let you talk me into it.”
“Because you’re my friend and you want to make me happy?” He swatted my mitten, unable to conceal his grin as we drove up a snowy, slippery Hyde Park Road.
When we got to the trailhead the snow was coming down fast, thick flakes sticking to my hat. I stuck out my tongue to taste the cold flakes. “Let’s go,” he said. “You lead.” As we made our way up the narrow side of Big Tesuque creek it was truly a winter wonderland. I could feel my hopeless, helpless, depression dissolve into awe and joy.
I kept telling him how happy I was being in the mountains, in the snow, in the majestic silence, how grateful I was that he was willing to take me. He wanted none of it. “Pay attention to where you’re stepping. The wet stones are slippery.”
It was so beautiful I was sorry I hadn’t thought to take my camera. “Can you take a photo,” I asked.
“I guess.” We stopped so he could take a few photos. I didn’t dare ask to see them because of the snow. When we got to Aspen Vista Road, he said, “Let’s go back on the other side of the creek. It’s easier going down. Not so many rocks. You don’t want to miss your appointment.” I was too happy to argue. We hiked down the trail in silence. He drove me to the hospital. I thanked him again and again. He blushed, wished me well, and drove off.
I entered the treatment room and signed in. The intake administrator said, “Well, look at you! You’re positively beaming.” I told her about being in the mountains in the snow. She shook her head in disbelief. “Go on in and sit. The nurse will be right with you.” I found a chair in a corner and waited for the nurse to hook me up to the IV fluids. To distract myself from the painful poke of the needle I told her about hiking up the mountain in the snow, ignoring her disapproving look. “You need to be careful,” she scolded. Your white counts are very low—you’re at risk for getting pneumonia” If I didn’t go, I’d be depressed and miserable. Is that really better? I fell asleep with visions of snowflakes dancing in my mind.
When I woke up, I saw an elegantly dressed, white-haired woman hesitantly approach my chair. Her smile was warm and caring. I smiled back. “Dear,” she said, “I know you’re Jewish, so I don’t want to impose, but how do you feel about angels?”
More than a little perplexed I said, “I like them fine.”
“Well,” she said. “I make angels for patients to hang on their Christmas trees. I know you don’t have a tree but I’d like to give you one of my angels if you would like to have one.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’d be pleased to have one.”
“See,” she pointed out. “It’s got a bald head because so many people lose their hair.” I took the angel, thanking her for her thoughtfulness and skill.
“It’s really kind of you to think about us. I’m sure it’s a busy time for you.”
“I’m never too busy to share my angels.”
“You’re an angel,” I told her. She smiled and walked to the person next to me.
A few minutes later, another woman dressed in red and green, with twirling red and green earrings came up to me. “I see you have a bald angel. I also make angels. May I give you one of mine. Two is better than one, I think, don’t you?”
“Definitely. You are absolutely right,” I agreed. She gave me one of the angels she had made, looking as happy as I felt. Having never had any angels, to suddenly have two felt like a double blessing.
As I was playing with my angels, a man dressed in white introduced himself and asked if I would like a foot massage. First two angels, then a massage? All the while hooked up to an IV in a cancer clinic? “Yes, I would like one. Very much.” He helped me take off my socks and I lay back in the chair, enjoying the feel of his strong warm hands on my cold feet. I must have dozed off because when I woke up, he was gone and my socks were back on my feet.
I was waiting at the clinic door for a friend to pick me up and take me home. When she asked how the treatment had gone, I told her, “It went fine. I slept for most of it, dreaming I was dancing in snowy mountains with angels.
Seven years later, still in remission, the two angels hang in the entryway to my house, reminding me how the kindness of strangers helps me to heal.
It’s a difficult time in which we’re living: political uncertainty, the virus, and for me, my cat who is wasting away yet still manages to leap up on to my bed and purr, ready for an all-night cuddle. I call it purrdling. I cuddle, she purrs.
Depression has been my life-long companion. Drugs don’t touch it. What has always helped me manage to keep going, to feel a little better, is being in the forest, hiking in mountains, preferably alone. I’m grateful that at 84 I’m still able to hike down a steep trail to a circle of stones made by the few hikers who pass by. It’s a large circle divided into four quadrants, lined with stones leading to the inner circle. It feels like a special place, with a mystical energy I cannot describe.
I hike with a talisman stone heart. Every time I hike it nestles in my left pocket, a source of comfort and security. This time, when I approach the circle, an inner voice says I need to put my talisman stone heart in the circle. I resist. I put heart stones I’ve found in the circle. My inner voice is relentless. I need to place my talisman stone heart on the center stones. Reluctantly, wondering why I am listening to a voice I don’t understand, I carefully, almost tearfully, place my talisman stone on top of the other heart stones I’ve put there. I stand quietly, allowing my heart to fill—with gratitude, love, hope—the wish that people would stop shouting and start talking, would listen intently, even to those whose ideas seem most egregious. When an inner voice says I am ready, I walk slowly around the circle. At each quarter I stop. I think about the world as it is, not caring that I am only one small, insignificant person among billions. I send compassion, lovingkindness, and the wish for peace and justice into the world.
I step back from the circle, taking in its wholeness. I appreciate the many people, unknown to me and perhaps each other, who have created this space in this place. It feels good that in order to reach it you have to hike up or down steep mountainsides.
As I turn away, ready to hike back up, I feel something inside me shift. I feel a little lighter. I feel a little more hopeful. I have done what I can do.
Photo by Jane Ely
As part of my 80th birthday celebration I chose to do a vision quest—four days and four nights alone in the wilderness, with no phone, books, watch, or digital devices. I hoped being alone, with no distractions, and only a journal to write in, would enable me to shed emotional and psychological burdens I’d carried for years.
There were months of preparation—making 144 prayer ties filled with cornmeal and tobacco, monthly visits with the vision quest leader, a 12-hour mini-vision quest in a nearby forest, preparation with our retreat leaders and the group for two days before beginning the vision quest, yet nothing prepared me for what happened.
We entered our designated location at 5am and I immediately slept for hours, lulled by the sounds of the forest. I was woken by a voice inside me telling me it was time to get started.
What I did during the four days and nights is considered medicine, not to be shared. What I can say is that each time the voice told me to do something, like stamp on dead branches, memories of my early childhood surfaced—memories of horror and abuse and murderous violence—of living away from home. At times, experiences I’d been told never happened. Other times, experience for which I was blamed. I understood the abuse was not my fault, that for years I’d had a metaphorical sign on my chest saying, “Abuse me.” I left it all in the wilderness.
At the retreat center we processed what we had experienced. When it was my turn, I began to cry for the first time since I was 16 and had been refused entry into a school club because I was Jewish. The other retreat participants waited with calm, waited until I was ready to speak. I told the truth of some of the abuse, how it had scarred me, how I never felt good enough or lovable. They listened with no judgment, many quietly crying. When I finished there was a perceptible silence. Had I said too much? Had I said the wrong thing?
As a group they came over to me, offering hugs, encouragement, kindness, caring. For the first time I felt part of a group. For the first time I felt good enough.
Once one knows something, one cannot unknow it. What I experienced doing the vision quest made it possible for me to continue healing, by choosing to be with people who treat me well and with kindness. I’m still learning how to feel good enough.