If you spend any time at all on Facebook or other social media sites, you are surely seeing a lot more opinions expressed, and on a much greater range of topics than ever before. Social media has given many of us new ways to proclaim what we believe and to try to persuade others of our point of view. It has emboldened us to speak our minds more publicly and more frequently than we would have dared to otherwise. We also have a much larger audience and scope of influence than we had just a decade or so ago.
Generally, I think this is a good thing. We learn and grow largely by listening to and interacting with ideas that are different from our own. But with this increased flow of data come two increased responsibilities: first, to discern which opinions that we encounter are worth adopting, and second, to share with others ideas that are likely valuable to them.
I believe that one of the first and most important steps toward fulfilling both of these responsibilities is to determine whether an opinion being expressed is really believed by the person expressing it. That is, if someone is sharing a new idea with you, decide how strongly that person actually believes it. And when you are expressing your ideas, make sure that you are saying what you truly believe. But watch out: it’s harder than you think!
There is a key to knowing whether someone really believes what they say, and it works both with others and with yourself. In principle, it’s easy: just watch their behavior (or your own), because people always act in accordance with what they truly believe, unless coerced otherwise. If someone says that they believe in obeying traffic laws, but they routinely drive 10 MPH over the speed limit, they are not being completely honest. What they really believe is closer to obeying all traffic laws except the speed limit when they can get away with exceeding it. If someone says they believe in free speech, but shouts down others whose opinions are different from their own, they show by their actions that only their own message is free and valuable, but opposing ideas are not worth listening to.
If you pay attention to what people tell you, comparing what they say with what they do, you’ll find that many times their claims don’t match their behavior, and when you think about it, it’s pretty easy to realize that their behavior is more accurately indicating what they believe. This is true for anyone: your family, Facebook friends, neighbors, colleagues, politicians, and celebrities.
It’s more difficult with your own beliefs, because it is so easy to deceive ourselves. If you tell yourself that you believe in taking good care of your body, but snack on junk food every day, then what you really believe is that keeping yourself healthy isn’t so important. Lately I’ve been struggling with prayer. I tell myself that I believe in God and that prayer is an essential discipline of daily Christian life, but it is very difficult for me to pray regularly and faithfully. I have been working through that inconsistency: Do I really believe that God listens to my prayers? Do I really expect Him to answer them? (That might become another blog post sometime.)
Discovering and recognizing the disconnects between what you “believe” and what you do is a powerful first step toward personal growth. Finding such disconnects in others who are trying to persuade you to adopt their way of thinking on an issue can help you understand how important (or unimportant) it is to them, despite what they say about it. Of course, even if their life doesn’t support what they claim to believe, that does not necessarily mean that what they claim to believe is wrong. They might still be giving you good advice, so don’t reject it just because they don’t live up to their own standards. But someone who practices what they preach is certainly more persuasive than one who doesn’t.
Earlier, I briefly mentioned an exception to the general principle that people always act in accordance with what they truly believe. I need to say more about that. People can be coerced into acting contrary to their beliefs, although this might just reveal a more nuanced understanding of their beliefs. On TV we’ve all seen extreme situations where the good guy is coerced by threats against his family to do something we know he would never do otherwise: “I would never rob the bank I work in, unless you’ll kill my daughter if I don’t.” Actions under such extreme coercion—which most of us are highly unlikely to ever see in real life—are certainly exceptions to the general rule.
Another exception is addiction, which can force people to act in ways they no longer want to. Generally, of course, people become addicted by starting to eat, drink, use, or do something through their free choice. It becomes an addiction after they have repeated the behavior long enough to become dependent on it. Often the addiction and its effect on their lives are what finally convince them that their choices were wrong and that they should change their behavior. Unfortunately, no matter how completely their beliefs have changed or how strongly they are now held, the addiction often powerfully blocks them from aligning their behavior with what they now believe.
I mentioned two exceptions to this idea (coercion and addiction). Can you think of others?
What real-life examples have you seen of someone’s behavior betraying their beliefs? (Public figures are fair game!)
I shared one area where I am using this insight to align my behavior with what I believe is right. Does your behavior indicate something in your own life that you perhaps don’t believe as strongly as you like to think?