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When Beliefs Change: Lessons from Alaska and a Littered Ravine


Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, five of us, including my sons, Nick and Joe, were hitchhiking around Alaska. 

We wanted adventure.

To improve our chances of fetching rides, we separated into two groups.

A native Alaskan named Lisa stopped to give two of us a ride.  The conversation quickly became engaging. 

As the 20-mile drive ended, she offered a startling invitation: “Would you come to my house for dinner while you are visiting Alaska?”   

“Yes!” came quickly.

A couple days later, as we entered her home, amazement overtook us.  There, two long tables stretched across the room, laden with foods previously unknown to us: Beluga whale strips, caribou soup, seal meat dipped in spicy mustard, and loads of accompaniments.  Wide-eyed, and spirited by the novelty before us, we ate.

After dinner, I said, “You know, Lisa, we have no experience with Eskimo culture, so being here is really special for us.”

Her response jarred me:  “I am not an Eskimo.  I am Inuit. My people are indigenous to the Arctic.  I was raised in a village on the Bering Sea.  The term ‘Eskimo’ to us, is derogatory, like any other racial slur. I don’t live in an igloo.”

How embarrassing.  Having just partaken in Lisa’s exceptional hospitality, I insulted her.

Her directness continued:  “Look, there’s no offense taken, because you obviously didn’t know the history of that word, and its colonial connotations.  But now that you know, you can be responsible.”

It’s that last line that hit me the hardest:

“Now that you know, you can be responsible.”

Plainly, those words apply to all forms of unfounded beliefs, ignorance, and conditioned bias.

The impact is far-reaching.

Here’s another example:

I watch over a rural property bordered by a stream called Lively Run Creek.  The creek flows through a deep ravine on its way to one of the beautiful Finger Lakes.

Over many years, family members and I have pulled out pieces of discarded metal, glass, plastic and textiles from the creek bed.  Why would someone throw a large, used carpet down an embankment into a flowing creek? 

The answer:  To get rid of it!

The casual casting off of non-recyclable materials into green spaces and waterways reveals ignorance, perhaps mixed with apathy.  For one who understands the “downstream effects” of sustained pollution, careless clearing of rubbish is a form of self-harm.

Ancient cultures didn’t have this problem.  “Reduce, reuse, recycle” has been an understood practice for millennia.  That’s because, historically, most waste was biodegradable.  What couldn’t be composted was re-purposed. 

Industrialization brought plastics, oils, and metals new to human consumption.  The tractor axles, car radiators, wires, tires and bottles tossed into nearby ditches would take hundreds of years to break down. 

When the nature of rubbish changed, assumptions about rubbish disposal also had to change. 

But did they?

Sometimes, not knowing comes from lack of exposure, as in the “Eskimo” story.

But not knowing can also indicate not wanting to know.  That kind of active resistance to enlightenment is more arrogant than ignorant.

Arrogance reveals strong emotional processes such as an irrational attachment to the past, an assumption of superiority, and/or a reactive refusal to consider new circumstances.  Can you hear the cognitive stuckness here:

“My grandfather never recycled, and I really loved my grandfather, so I follow his example.”

“My family growing up never meant any harm by the labels they used.”

“It’s not going to hurt anything.”

“What’s the big deal?”

It’s comfortable to hold onto long-cherished beliefs, even when we discover they don’t make sense anymore.  The power of the familiar has a way of steamrolling accuracy.

But all beliefs are provisional. No mature individual can be relieved of the responsibility to reconsider their assumptions based on new information.

Thank you, Lisa, for this pearl of wisdom:

Now that we know, we can be responsible.



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