Monday, November 2, 2009

Confirmation and Strawberries

I had just turned 6 and it was time for the annual Strawberry Festival, which is almost exactly like the Florida State Fair, only with lots and lots of winter strawberries (yum!) That year it was Giggy, my sister Esther*, my cousin Jason*, and me. After watching the pig races and eating elephant ears, we walked through one of the giant flea-market style aluminum buildings to look at displays people had made out of, or inspired by, strawberries.

I came to one display I didn't understand. I stood and conetmplated for several minutes, trying to understand what a wax sculpture of an African-American baseball player had to do with strawberries**. After a while I looked up and around me and realized I was alone. My family had moved on and left me behind.

I stayed calm,and I prayed as I walked through the galley, for the Lord to help me find my family. Once outside, I spotted a policewoman and I quickly approached her. "Excuse me, my family has lost me."

"You're lost?"

"No, I'm not lost. I know where I am," I explained, "but they don't."

Lost or not, she took me to the locomotive caboose car being used for the Lost and Found at the festival. It was boring, but it didn't last long. While I waited inside, amongst boxes of wallets of sunglasses, she put a call out across the loudspeakers that I'd been found. I started singing "Amazing Grace" to myself, now especially pleased with the line about "I once was lost but now am found." Giggy poked her head through the train car door and came to retrieve me. I was scolded for not keeping up and for dawdling, and then we went to join my cousin and sister at the make-your-own strawberry shortcake tent.

That night, I told my mom I had met an angel. I had prayed and God had sent that angel disguised as a policewoman to come bring me back to my family, like a lost sheep (in reality, a neglected sheep.) And for years I was convinced she was an angel. I obviously don't think that now, but my mother didn't correct my labeling. After all, how can you judge the validity of someone else's supernatural experience or their conversation with an angel, if you accept that these things do occur at least some of the time? My angel wasn't more or less credible than anyone else's.

I'd always thought of the man who saved Giggy from the canal when she was a teenager was something of an angel. Both he and the policewoman were African-American, and so for the rest of the time that I believed in Angels, I thought they were all black. Maybe Gabriel was a blonde white guy, but surely the non-arch angels were all black. After all, the only people I knew of who had been nice just to be nice, and not for some gain, were black. So obviously angels were black.

Confirmation bias is simply starting by believing something, and then making new data twist out of shape to hold onto that beleif. I believed that god was required to answer my prayers, and I beleived that he never worked through people, only through direct intervention. So when I found the policewoman, I thught it was because "god had led me to her". I probably just learned from Seasame sTREET that a police officer is a good person to find if you're lost or need help. (I certainy woul not have learned that from my parents, who taught me to fear all authority that wasn't "godly".)

I wouldn't have concluded, "She's an angel" if I'd never been told about angels and how they're messengers of god who come interact with and talk to people. (My son has no idea what an "angel" means but at 4 he knows the names of a half dozen bones in the human body.) Once your ideas are already biased in a direction, it is human nature to cling to ideas which support your primary belief, and to reject those that seem to contradict it. That's because it's unpleasant to hold conflicting views or ideas at hte same time. That's called cognitive dissonance and it is that unpleasant sensation that, I think, leads to a quest for truth for some and compartmentalized thinking for others. It's not a sustainable place to stay in the long-run.

Since I thought everything good from God and there was no such thing as human goodness, I had to warp the data in front of me - a woman who appeared in every respect to be mortal and human - to fit with my primary beliefs about the nature and behavior of God. Magical thinking, sloppy thinking, uncritical thinking - you don't have to try hard at all to be completely and utterly wrong. Just go with what seems to fit with what you already believe, and you'll never have to change or be confronted by disquieting ideas. It's like Valium for the psyche. "Yeah, that fits. Therefore, it must be true."

* Names changed
**It was Darryl. I get it now.