Unravelling the Fabric

I once wrote about prayer. I said, in four words, don’t pray for me. Apparently two students missed the memo, because right as I took a bite into my lunch yesterday (sitting on a bench outside, enjoying the weather while I read a news story about McCutcheon vs. the FEC) two young men walked up to me and asked where I’d gotten my jacket.

Except–like last time–I knew at once it was a cover. I swallowed my mouthful, “Why, Beta Brand, of course,” I said, and waited for the inevitable questions about faith and God and all the fabric of the universe in between: “May we pray for you?”

Oh, what’s a man to do?

My usual tactic is to turn a prayer for me into a prayer for those unseen and ignored by those asking, but now I know more about demographics, and I could assume that those most likely to go around praying for others are also those most likely to identify as conservative. There’s nothing wrong with that (ideological difference aside, so long as someone is informed on issues, I’ll respect their opinions–no matter how wrong I might believe they are), but I figured I might have the chance to do some proselytizing of my own.

So when they asked, “May we pray for you?” I said, “I’m doing alright, but there are people in our community who can’t afford to eat, and our government is only making it harder for them when they cut programs like Food Stamps, something that affects my own family, so if you could pray for our leaders to truly help the people, that would mean a lot.”

Except they didn’t quite get the message. “But there is anything we can pray for, for you? How’s school going? Could we pray for that?”

“School’s going well,” I said: all the academic challenges I’m facing (like papers, tests, and more homework than I can manage) are not matters worthy of prayer. I’ve said this before, but they didn’t get the memo, so they pressed me for more.

I looked up at them, took a breath, and took it to the next level: “My partner’s facing some immigration issues, and it would be wonderful if they were resolved.”

Damn it, I said “partner,” why didn’t I say “boyfriend”?

But they asked a few questions, I got to say “he” a lo: they got the message clear enough.

And then they bowed their heads and prayed–for financial troubles to be resolved, for my semester to keep going great, for the immigration issues to pass. They didn’t mention Food Stamps or the need for government to change its practices; they didn’t mention my boyfriend, not even in passing.

But I’d said all that–so maybe they didn’t have to. If it made them think, was that enough?

They kept asking about other things–faith, religion, my beliefs of God–and so we spoke a bit about Judaism (they didn’t even know Judaism’s monotheistic at first), and it was an interesting conversation. I got the impression he was trying to weasel me into saying I didn’t believe in God, you know, open me up for an infomercial on Jesus, but I’ve got God in my life. Doesn’t matter if I’m a liberal-leaning homosexual Jew, I wasn’t making myself their target: I treated them as equals, forcing them to do the same–because who wants to come out looking like a sore loser?

They left, but I still felt a little soured from the encounter–I don’t like the thought of praying for someone in the manner they do, and I wasn’t all that satisfied with my seemingly uneventful attempt at enlightening others.

So I took another bite and kept reading: I finished the campaign finance article and started one about party polarization, which introduced me to identity-protective cognition: the mind’s amazing ability to unconsciously twist reality to conform to our own beliefs. Otherwise mathematically savvy individuals will botch basic arithmetic to show a study supports their own viewpoints–and they don’t even know they’re doing it.

I felt depressed.

How much of what I believe is my own unconscious attempt at saving my own face? What had seemed so clear to me talking about prayer and faith now suddenly seemed rife with lies–at least half of them mine, but each of them wholly unknown. Suddenly the threads of my perfect identity began to unravel and fray. If we’re all hung up reasoning logically to our own ends, how can anything be treated objectively?

I had tried to open their eyes to the plight of the poor and the struggles of same-sex binational couples, but perhaps by trying to humanize these issues, I only reinforced their prejudice toward each of these groups. I professed my faith as something other than their own; I had placed myself in a group unto which they did not belong, and in so doing, invalidated everything I said–every word, meaningless.

Had instead I claimed to be just like them, these subtle differences might have made them uncomfortable, forced them to think, reconsider, and expand their beliefs. Instead I allowed them to box all these aspects of my identity into a single coffin they could bury as soon as they left, forgetting everything except the inadvertent validation I had given to each of their beliefs–about politics, faith, even family dynamics.

I really don’t know what this all means to me, I’m still processing the implications of the article (it was quite lengthy, so I only finished it over lunch today), but the academic who named identity-protective cognition seems to think by recognizing our inherent likeliness to twist facts to our liking, we can overcome it. But even if I do, that won’t change the world or others around me–it’ll only push them further away.

It’s sunny outside, but the world somehow seems a little darker than before.


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