It’s Not All or Nothing

Lately I’ve been diving into “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a book about Dr. Paul Farmer who works with TB patients in Haiti. In Haiti, TB has been blamed for centuries on sorcery and Farmer finds himself frustrated, assuming that these patients will not trust modern medicine due to their conflicting beliefs.

He realizes his mistake in talking to one elderly patient. She asks him “honey, are you incapable of complexity?” and he stands aghast at his ignorance. Because people can believe in two seemingly conflicting ideals.

My father is a scientist, through and through, a man who looks for reason in everything. My father is a Christian, through and through, a man who lives in the undying faith of everything. They are different and sometimes conflicting but the two ideals can live in the same house.

In Peru there are many non-medical beliefs that made my job with the Peace Corps difficult. I would tell a mother that her child was sick because of poor hygiene, she would say “no, no, he stood in the breeze for too long.” I would say he has a parasite because of bad water, she would say “no, no, no he’s been eating too many sweets.” I became frustrated, she became frustrated. No one did any good for anyone else.

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I had a training a couple of months in to working in my community where we talked about these issues.

How can I tell a mother than an egg rubbed on the skin won’t cure a skin infection?  No one believes what I tell them. 

The answer came from a technical trainer: you don’t believe what they tell you either.

She explained that denying someone’s beliefs can only lead to them denying yours, you say no and they respond with no. It would do no harm to simply say, “ok, perhaps, and also…”

In this there was no denial of beliefs, just expansion upon them. Ok maybe your kid is sick because he stood in the breeze, so let’s get him a jacket, and also let’s try looking at food and water quality. The ideas don’t conflict, they just aren’t best friends. They can work together.

This idea could apply to so many messages I’ve seen around the internet.

“How can you be a feminist when you used to be a stripper.”

“You can’t believe in equal rights and be against abortion”

“How can you be strong when you’re so emotional”

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Ideals can conflict and their owners can work them out for themselves. Not every stance means the same thing to each person.

When I was younger, I struggled with the conflict between my religion and politics. In high school I remember getting a study bible with margin notes that broke down modern society. One note said “gay people are making an active choice to defy God.” I stared at that note, feeling uneasy but not knowing why. Because I was 14 and I’d never met a gay person.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later when a close friend came out that I felt angry, almost hostile toward that note. I told my father I was scared that my friend would go to hell for being who he was. My father said simply: what if there is no hell?

Mind. Blown. Conflict resolved.

Because believing that God is with me every day and that I can love my gay friends and not believe that are wrong in any way, those ideas don’t conflict. Not for me. Not with my God and my friends.

Now, you can agree or disagree with anything I’ve said, anything in the world actually, that’s your choice. Agree or disagree and build your own ideals, understand the world in your own way and I’ll do that same.

Best of luck.

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