Unusual Beliefs and Behaviors vs. Objective Realities and Truths

I just finished reading Reverend Dr. Epperson’s treatise on abnormal ideas and behaviors as they relate to mental health. Similar to my thoughts about Sera Davidow’s article almost three years ago entitled, “Mental Illness Does Not Exist, and Neither Does Mental Health” (see my response then), I was moved by his knowledge, insights, empathy, and responsiveness. There is little doubt that some of the greatest achievements this world has ever known came at the hands of those who were ostracized for “unusual” beliefs and lifestyles. There is no doubt that the lack of empathy for others’ ideas and curiosities is one of the greatest atrocities the world has ever known. And there is no doubt that increased empathy and responsiveness is the number one way we as a society can improve the world we live in. To this, I have no arguments.

But as a father and a child psychologist, I do feel it is critical to consider this perspective from another angle. I will start with Reverend Dr. Epperson’s final thought:

“A growing body of research and practice is showing that the most effective, humane and mutually transformative way to help someone deal with unusual beliefs and experiences is not to deny, argue, institutionalize or drug them out of their perceived reality. Rather, it is to invite the person to talk about their beliefs and experiences, and actively listen without judging them or trying to modify their beliefs. Find out about their reality, and then look for ways to help them cope more effectively with things as they perceive them.”

Much of this I agree with, as noted in my first paragraph. But when it comes to the last line, this is fraught with serious complications when it comes to parenting and psychological practice. My wife just had our 7th child – which many of you might consider unusual in its own right – and I wonder just what would happen if my kids came to me with the following ideas:

“Dad, I was raised by aliens and transported to this house.”

“Dad, I am thinking that drinking alcohol and taking morphine daily is good for me and my homework.”

“Dad, the pillow on the front couch is bright green.” (But red by my and others’ estimation)

“Dad, I think that the toilet is a portal to another universe.”

As a parent, any of these statements pushes me to consider just how I might respond. In agreement with Reverend Dr. Epperson’s thoughts, the immediate “shut down” response is probably not the most effective, and certainly not the most empathetic one. I believe youth should be heard and respected for whatever ideas they hold. But when it comes time to go beyond initial respect and empathy, I can’t ignore that how I “weigh in” on these ideas may have all sorts of consequences. As noted in my response years ago, failure to label children’s healthy or reality-based ideas for what they are could lead to dire consequences down the road in regards to their relationships, jobs, living situation, health, and well-being. My kids have a right to their feelings, thoughts, and perceptions no matter what they are; however, I as a parent must do my best to “play the parenting odds” in teaching them what will most likely lead to a healthy and happy life, and what I believe is real. A half century of research indicates that permissiveness (in whatever way this is manifested) does not lead to good adult outcomes for kids—not just by our standards, but also theirs.

Yet if I am to take this idea further, imagine you are a teacher of a 3rd grade class, and your students came to you and challenged you on the following ideas:

“Mrs. Smith, the bulletin board is not red.” (Even though by all other standards it is)

“Mrs. Smith, I don’t need to listen to what you say.”

“Mrs. Smith, my desk has aliens in it.”

“Mrs. Smith, vodka and gin helped me get my math done last night.”

Again, as a teacher, it behooves you to consider what all your students are saying, and understand what is driving what they say and think. But I believe anyone reading this article could easily understand just how impossible it would be to manage a classroom if everyone’s perceptions and behaviors, not objective realities and clear expectations, were seen as the “gold standard.”

One fundamental mistake I believe is repeatedly made today when it comes to working with those who feel disenfranchised, marginalized, discounted, or discriminated against is believing that the opposite response must be the best response. By this I mean that it seems that there is a certainly prevailing notion by some that in order to truly be a caring society, we must accept all beliefs as if they hold truth. Now, to some extent, the idea of “truth” itself is a slippery slope fraught all sorts of potential conflict and emotionality, especially when the goal of a communication is to “prove someone wrong.” This ill intent almost never leads to good outcomes, and certainly not mutual respect and love. But a complete negation of truth and reality is not the answer either.

As a parent, and a child psychologist, and just as a person, I believe that acquiescing to the idea that we should simply help people “cope more effectively with things as they perceive them” falls short of the most effective and even most loving response. If I have every reason to believe that a person’s actions (e.g., drug use, bizarre public displays) or beliefs (e.g., “everyone is out to get me”, “she is the devil”) are causing or perpetuating negative outcomes (by my standards and theirs), then it is my civic and personal duty to help people understand what I perceive and why this is the case. Furthermore, any action or belief that leads to potential harm of others is not acceptable either. No one has a corner on the truth. But we all have an obligation to do our best to seek it out and provide it, especially in situations in which someone is struggling or in need of formation, as with youth.

And as far as the Roman Catholic piece in transubstantiation, I agree with Reverend Dr. Epperson’s sense regarding this idea. It is one of the most mystical tenets that exists, and if it weren’t for its basis in recorded historical events, two thousand years of Catholic teaching, and countless Eucharistic miracles that defy any other secular scientific explanation, there is no way I would even entertain the notion of transubstantiation.  Even with all of this, I must admit that it is a leap of faith—and one that to this day is easy to deny.

Ultimately, every human being has the potential to learn from every human being. An atheist can teach a Catholic much. A drug abuser can be a brilliant mathematician. Poor, unkempt, strange hermetic people line the annals of Catholic saints. Kids can provide countless insights for their parents, as I have learned repeatedly over the years. And without a doubt, anyone who thinks that they know more than they don’t IS certifiably insane. But let’s not forget that there is a very important place for reality, truth, and authority in this world, just as there is for empathy, respect, and responsiveness. When used in an abusive, uncaring manner, the former entities can be horrible. Yet the only action worse than abusive their abusive usage would be to let go of the search and promulgation of wisdom, knowledge, and authority altogether, and assume that the world would work just fine if everyone was okay with how you or I perceived it. That’s a recipe for mass chaos, or at least a household or classroom in disarray.

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