I was recently told I was brainwashed and oblivious. I didn’t take it too personally because it was part of a righteous monologue before I really even entered the conversation. It was kind of like “these are the facts and you’re too brainwashed and oblivious to see them.”
Nonetheless, accusations like these warrant an investigation every now and again. I took a thorough look back at my knowledge, beliefs, and education. I concluded that if this person had my education, they would not think I was brainwashed or oblivious and probably wouldn’t have drawn their line so firmly in the sand to begin with.
This isn’t because of my education itself. It’s not about facts or knowledge. It’s because I’ve spent a lot of time with brilliant people who showed me how to be curious, to open my mind, to think and explore and be wrong and search for answers. This certainly doesn’t need to come from a formal education, it just happens to be where I found it. I’ve had many incredible teachers throughout my life but I can point to two who ensured I will never be brainwashed or oblivious.
When I was 15, I was enrolled in a Catholic high school (I’m not Catholic) and was required to take a theology class each semester. As a 15-year-old nonbeliever in a mandatory theology class, I can promise you that I didn’t enter that classroom with the best attitude. It was where I went to get my pre-lunch nap.
One day, Mr. Campos asked me to chat after class. He had an endlessly kind demeanor and even though I totally knew I was busted for sleeping he didn’t make me feel at all like I was in trouble. He calmly said, “I noticed that you sleep a lot during this class. I’d really like if you listened to what I’m trying to teach. Maybe you’ll get something out of it.”
I told him I wasn’t religious and had no interest in his teachings. He said, “I understand. I’m just asking that you hear my perspective.” He was so sincere and kind that even my 15-year-old heathen self decided to make an effort.
In spite of this extra effort, I forgot absolutely everything about theology class – with two important exceptions. The first was when Mr. Campos said he highly recommends that we all check out the latest hit movie The Matrix. He was super into it. The second shaped me in such a deep and profound way that I didn’t even notice until many years later.
Mr. Campos stood in front of the class and drew the biggest circle he could on the chalkboard. “This represents what I will call God. You can call it the universe or whatever you’d like. It represents the full and complete understanding of life.”
He shaded in a small area on one side of the circle. “This represents the beliefs and understandings of Christianity.”
He shaded another small area. “This is Judaism.”
He shaded another small section all the way across the circle. “This is atheism.”
He went on shading small areas and labeling them with different religions or belief systems.
“Each belief is an understanding of God, or the universe. No matter how you slice it, we’re all seeking to understand the same thing and we are doing so in our own ways. We don’t have to agree but we do need to realize that our own beliefs do not invalidate any other beliefs. Everyone has their own understanding of God. None of these are entirely complete. None of them are the whole story. And every different point of view and belief serves to bring us closer to a complete understanding.”
Years later, during my pre-med biology undergraduate career, I was taking a genetics class with Dr. Steven Robinow. It was impossible to enjoy his class at the time. He forced students to engage in conversation, give answers even when we didn’t know the answers, and, worst of all, he made us memorize the chemical structure of every amino acid. I still sometimes jump out of bed with the structure of tyrosine burning in my brain. I don’t know if I can ever forgive him.
He painstakingly taught us the “genetics dogma” as he called it. DNA codes for amino acids and amino acids code for proteins, among other fundamental understandings.
One of the more exciting and frustrating aspects of a subject like genetics is that huge discoveries which completely change our understanding are still being made. This was not lost on Dr. Robinow. He strongly emphasized the importance of not holding onto any particular explanation, definition, or concept of genetics simply because that’s what we learned in school.
“Always remember,” he said loudly, “today’s dogma is tomorrow’s dog shit.”
He encouraged us to explore alternative explanations, to think things through, to challenge ideas, to incorporate new findings and adjust our understanding accordingly. He taught me that despite all this education and studying, maybe I have it all wrong.
But that’s ok. That’s science. That’s medicine. Hell, that’s life. Our understanding should be constantly changing and adapting when we are given additional information. We can’t continue to believe something simply because that’s what we were taught or that’s how we’ve always viewed the world. If your beliefs are completely unchanging then it’s likely because you aren’t learning anything new or are refusing to incorporate new information.
Mr. Campos and Dr. Robinow taught me to be excited and curious when I’m proven wrong. Being wrong is an opportunity to learn. Because of their teachings, I approach life knowing that I don’t have a full and complete understanding of anything. Even if I do, a new discovery could show up at any time and undermine my entire belief system. I don’t fight for my beliefs. I accept that they may be incomplete, inaccurate. I try to add to them, correct them, adjust them, complete them.
I won’t ever be brainwashed or oblivious because I constantly seek new knowledge and work to adjust my thoughts and views when new information is presented. I’m wrong all the time. All the time. This is never a failure on my part. On the contrary, it’s a necessary part of understanding anything. It’s an ugly and never-ending struggle to learn and effectively incorporate new ideas.
Being absolutely certain I’m right about something is a sure sign that I’m caught up in my own tiny shaded area of the circle. It’s the perfect time to consider the rest of the circle and take a look down at the dogma in my desperate hands to make sure it hasn’t quietly turned into dog shit.