By Dr. Jim Sulliman
Most people are familiar with the proverb “Seeing is believing,” to indicate that “you need to see something before you can accept that it really exists or occurs.” Thomas has long been its poster child, given his statement “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25). If we switch words around, however, the resulting phrase has far more importance to understanding human behavior, for our beliefs greatly affect our “vision”.
In the early 20th century, a medical doctor and psychologist Alfred Adler wrote about the importance of one’s “biased apperception” which is sometimes referred to as “private logic,” “lifestyle,” or “cognitive schema.” This is something that each individual develops early in life which colors the way he or she perceives the world, others, and himself or herself. This perspective typically remains constant throughout one’s life and affects attitudes, behaviors, and the interpretation of reality. One of the goals of therapy is to help the individual to understand this “bias” and determine whether it has caused or is causing problems in their thoughts and actions regarding self, others, and, for me, a Christian therapist, God. Once a person “understands” why they believe the way they have believed all their lives, change is possible.
As a simplistic example, a boy grows up in a family where he is the youngest child in a family with three older sisters. His mother and father are highly educated, and all the children are extremely bright. The boy, however, does not believe that because all he knows is that his sisters do everything better than he does and they all read schoolbooks that are way beyond his comprehension. His feelings of “less than” are exacerbated by the fact that all three girls delight in telling him how “dumb” he is and never fail to point out his mistakes and failures. His self-perception may become one of inadequacy, despite the intelligence and abilities with which he is endowed. He expects that he will fail at anything meaningful. “Meaningful,” however, is defined by anything at which he fails to support his life view. The things he succeeds at become trivial…the things he fails at are the only ones that matter!
I have seen doctors that have felt like they were not “good enough” because they were not surgeons. And surgeons who were disappointed in themselves for not being heart surgeons. Even a heart surgeon who was suicidal because he was second in his class. His father, also a physician who was first in his class, referred to him throughout his life as his “number two son” even though he was the first-born. There was nothing he could achieve that would alter his biased self-perception.
Often, people will “unknowingly” marry someone who will continue to reinforce the private beliefs they hold about themselves, others, and the world at large. A person who likes control, marries someone passive while an individual who has been “led” all their life chooses a “commander.” Sometimes we marry someone who challenges our “faulty” life perspective and confusion, frustration, anger, and continuous efforts to defend an often indefensible position arises when being confronted by someone who has completely different beliefs.
Some people become convinced that “everyone is out for themselves” and most people are not good. It creates an attitude of “I am not going to help anyone else because no one does anything for me.” Such a negative viewpoint is easily reinforced by highlighting and remembering all the numerous examples of the bad things people do and minimizing the good which gives ample data to support that “reality.” People of this persuasion never fail to see “the dark cloud behind the silver lining.” It is difficult for family members not to be affected by a committed “downer.”
It is almost as if we put on a pair of glasses at a young age through which we view the world. Just as eyeglasses “distort” reality so that things are made clearer to us, our private logic is like a special pair of bifocals that magnify the events and interactions that support our world view, while minimizing or discarding those things that are not in compliance with our beliefs.
Long after we leave our childhood, this same kind of thing also happens in a similar way when we make judgments about people that we are getting to know. Once an impression and judgment are formed, the “believer” often becomes intransigent and selects those examples which lend credence to an increasingly entrenched belief. If I believe that someone is a very good person, no matter what the person does, I will still have “evidence” to support that judgment. If they do something nice, I nod my head knowingly with confirmation of my assessment…if they do something “neutral,” I see it as a subtle reflection of their goodness… if they do something terrible, I simply discount it as their having a “bad day.” No matter what they do, my opinion does not change. This works the same way with every other belief we have as well.
If someone is suspicious about the “goodness” of a person or a relationship, likewise, they will always be on the lookout for evidence to support their viewpoint, weaving a collection of words, actions, and feelings into a tapestry that, taken out of their true context, provide useful confirmation for their skewed vision. Once someone is convinced of malevolence, it again makes no difference what the person does. That is why someone who commits a serious crime has difficulty finding someone, including members of parole boards, who see them in a different light.
When I was completing my PhD and post-doctoral classes, I became a counselor and then Director of Guidance and Counseling at a very large high school in Tallahassee, Florida. After the first week of my first year as the director, a veteran social studies teacher came to me and was quite perplexed because I had not provided all the teachers with the list of the “Walter Scott Criswell House” kids. The Criswell House was a halfway house for boys who had gotten in trouble with the law. I asked why she wanted it. She told me that she and the other teachers needed to know who the “bad kids” were. She was angry when I told her I would not be providing that list any longer and immediately went to the principal in anticipation of her going over my head. I convinced him that there was no need to set those kids up for getting thrown out of class. At the end of the year, I compared disciplinary referrals with the previous year and the decline was staggering. There was more than a 75% reduction in discipline referrals. Did the young men suddenly become better behaved that year or was the “biased apperception” removed? This was not unlike a study a few years earlier by a Harvard professor named Rosenthal who told teachers at an elementary school south of San Francisco that a group of children had particularly high IQs. In reality, he had chosen them at random. Two years later, those children had a greater increase in their IQ than did the other children. The number of research articles that support the fact that beliefs have massive impacts on what is perceived is staggering. Indeed, the discipline of “Social Psychology” has produced countless studies that demonstrate our “selective vision.”
There is no more important “belief” than our belief in God. It too has its foundation in our early years and is the responsibility of parents to develop. Children should see reflections of God in loving mothers and fathers who they can completely trust and know they are fully loved. How difficult it becomes for us to trust the Father we cannot see when we experience abuse, discouragement, negativity, criticism, and hurt from the one we can see. Jesus knew the importance of childlike trust when he emphatically stated, “It would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:2)
When we see others that believe God is vengeful and inflicts people with diseases, blindness, paralysis, and all other forms of pain, it is our responsibility to do our best to help them see that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). That is not always easy to do when the things we face seem to be inconsistent with a loving Father and is the argument levied against “believers” by atheists. But we must not expect to “see” first before we believe as Thomas Merton writes in “The Ascent to Truth,” or the faith journey may never begin.
Jesus also knew well how one’s beliefs, once formed, were difficult to change. We see that very clearly In Mark 6:3-6:
“Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them ‘a prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his kin in his own house.’ So, he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying hands on them. He was amazed by their lack of faith.”
Jesus replies to Thomas’ lack of faith by telling him “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed.” (John 20:29) it is only when we truly believe that we will “see”…and when people can see Jesus in us, it will make it easier for them to believe.
Submitted by James R. Sulliman, Ph.D. Individual, marriage, and family therapist in Abilene, TX. “Live life courageously”