Benedictine Life, Poetry

What nuns, monks and poets know about confirmation bias, with 3 practices to help overcome the fear of change

What is confirmation bias?

It clouds vision and causes the prejudice that makes people irrational and illogical. It can negatively effect our health and well being. It increases the likelihood we will falsely accuse innocent people and will readily believe malicious, unfounded lies. It leads to miscommunication and conflict in relationships. It is confirmation bias.

Psychologists tell us that while most of us believe that our opinions and “convictions are rational, logical, and impartial,” in reality, instead of analyzing facts objectively to understand what they mean, we are programmed to interpret facts in a way that will confirm whatever we already believe. Kendra Cherry, writing for VeryWellMind.com shows confirmation bias in action:

Let’s say Sally is in support of gun control. She seeks out news stories and opinion pieces that reaffirm the need for limitations on gun ownership. When she hears stories about shootings in the media, she interprets them in a way that supports her existing beliefs. Henry, on the other hand, is adamantly opposed to gun control. He seeks out news sources that are aligned with his position. When he comes across news stories about shootings, he interprets them in a way that supports his current point of view. These two people have very different opinions on the same subject and their interpretations are based on their beliefs. Even if they read the same story, their bias tends to shape the way they perceive the details, further confirming their beliefs.

Confirmation bias, in other words, is an entrenched resistance to changing our minds. It makes writers resist changing our words. It makes all of us us naturally hostile to the notion that we ought to change our behavior. And yet, we cannot improve a poem or a manuscript if we refuse to revise it. Neither can we become more joyful, peaceable, and wholly integrated (healthy-creative-rational-loving) humans if we refuse to change our lives.

Confirmation bias is rooted in the fear of change and works against our success. Whether the destination is a life well lived or a manuscript well written, if we want to get there, we must open ourselves to change.

But we already know this. Why, then, is it so difficult to eradicate confirmation bias? Why do we cringe when editors tell us our precious sentences aren’t communicating what we mean? Why do we grow hot under the collar when our dearly-held opinions come up against some opposition? Why can’t we just calmly listen, consider, and then when it makes sense to let go, just let go? 

Letting go of what we know takes us places we’ve never been. It tests our limits and stretches our capacity. It’s scary and often painful. 

In my interactions with poets and monastics, I’ve seen it is possible to become less fearful and more courageous. There are three habits we can cultivate that prepare us to change our minds and our ways. These are humility, fidelity, and accountability. 

Contemporary poets and writers don’t often use these old-fashioned words, but those who practice these habits become better writers—open to the revision process, faithful to the practice of writing, and accountable to editors and publishers who expect professionalism. The Rule of Benedict sheds light on how humility, fidelity and accountability can make life less frustrating and more joyful by providing a blueprint for overcoming our fear of change. 

3 Benedictine practices that help overcome the fear of change

The Benedictine Practice of Humility

Benedictine humility is not humiliating. Instead, it is rooted in the paradoxical notion that “you’re part of something bigger.” The author of this New Camaldoli Hermitage blog post explains:

“On the one hand, it makes life simpler because that means I don’t have to understand everything; I don’t have to have all the answers. I just do my part and trust that I am part of a bigger picture, a bigger plan of which I may not see the full scope. On the other hand, it sets the bar higher, because I have to think of something or someone beside myself. I’m part of something bigger.”

I became a Benedictine oblate 2 years ago, after a year of candidacy and formation. Therefore I am a very “young” oblate, and can’t speak from experience about the lifelong process of learning Benedictine humility. I can, however, tell you what it looks like. I am friends with monastics and oblates who embrace the lifelong challenge to abandon self-will and self-gratification. Their living examples are as beautiful as golden grace and sweet as unity. 

The Benedictine Practice of Fidelity (conversatio morum)

Benedictine nuns and monks profess a three-fold commitment to obedience, stability, and Conversatio Morum (ongoing growth through  “fidelity to the monastic way of life”). No matter where that way takes them, they go there together with their community.

While I’m not a nun, I do have experience with fidelity in marriage, a commitment to remain faithful to my husband no matter what challenges we encounter, even through his slow decline into cognitive impairment and dementia. The Rule of Benedict gives me the guidance to make this commitment doable, by offering practical instruction on how people can live together in love, even with obstructing differences, even in the face of all our human frailties and failures. 

Fidelity is a way of seeing, a kind of vision — it’s a matter of focus, of not looking far into the unknown (frightening) future and not looking back through a lens colored by nostalgia, anxiety or anger. Instead, to remain faithful to this way of life, I must keep my eye on the shape-shifting path itself. At times it feels like that ladder descending into humility. At times it becomes a trellis to support and train greening tendrils of growth nourished by grace. And sometimes it resembles a labyrinth with surprising rhythms of abrupt about-faces, the insights of which I can only learn by taking the journey. 

The very walking opens a pilgrim to the necessity for change. We don’t work to change ourselves; we merely work to stay on the path, to go where the will of God takes us, where love takes us. While it may sound dreary to give up self-will and our own gratification, in actuality I have discovered that the awakening rhythms and astonishing insights of staying on this path often turn my moving along into a joyful dance.  

The Benedictine Practice of Accountability

In her book The Rule of Benedict: a Spirituality for the 21st Century, Joan Chittister writes: 

“Accountability is the Benedictine value on which all community life is based. Benedict clearly never supposes perfection… People have bad days and recalcitrant spirits and limited education and difficult periods in life, all of which are acknowledged and provided for in a rule that concerns itself with single-minded seeking of God. What Benedict does require, however, is a sense of responsibility.”

Accountability is the awareness that whatever we do effects others, therefore is meaningful and must be done thoughtfully, with care. If we “commit a fault at any work,” Benedict says (RB 46:1) “either by breaking or losing something or failing in any other way in any other place…[we] must at once…of [our] own accord admit [our] fault and make satisfaction.” 

Accountability demands that we walk through our lives fully alive and aware of our impact on others. In an age when people routinely suppress their consciences with mindless entertainments, obsessive  and automatic excuses, where being busy is practically an art form, accountability has become nearly obsolete. And yet, who of us wants to arrive at the end of our lives only to realize we were mostly half-alive and oblivious, and therefore missed our own living? 

Here is a much-loved poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, written the early 20th century, that has served to awaken millions of readers around the world to the need to change the way they live:

ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO
(mythological god of light, the arts, and the art of medicine)
by Rainer Maria Rilke

translated by Tracy Rittmueller

We remain unacquainted with his magnificent head,
wherein his emblematic eyes matured. And yet,
his torso now gleams like a menorah
through which his scrutiny—only slightly unfastened—

constrains and illumines itself. Otherwise the prow
of his breast would not bedazzle you,
otherwise the quiet twisting of those procreative loins
would not work itself, in that center, into a smile.

Otherwise this stone would seem deformed,
diminished by those shoulders’ apparent fall
and would not tremble like the hides of lions;

and would not break from its man-made conventions,
free as a star: because there is no point or place
not seeing you. You must change your life.

And here on poets.org is a different translation of Rilke’s poem, with an interview of the poet Mark Doty, in which he talks about how the poet’s encounter with this statue is akin to prayer:

“This god is broken, this god’s head isn’t there. The speaker tries to make a connection. Attempts to link himself to that source, even broken or lost, of authority, power, vision.”

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” said Robert Frost. Therefore when I work in translation, I don’t mechanically play the poem back word by word (note by note). Instead, I improvise. I create a new poem like a jazz riff on the original. I listen to the music and the sense, process those through my own mind, body, and experience, and then express something uniquely my own. This, too, is akin to praying. This kind of personally meaningful prayer is another of the many things I’m learning from my monastic and oblate companions.

What nuns, monks and poets know about confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is rooted in our natural fear of change, and turns our living into a kind of sleepwalk. The practices of humility, fidelity and accountability, as shown in The Rule of Benedict, can awaken us and help us overcome our fear of moving on. The journey along this unpredictable path leads to spiritual growth and increases our awareness of the presence of love, joy and peace. I certainly want more of that goodness in my life. Don’t you? 

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