This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Eyes wide open

I grew up in southern Ontario, just a short distance from Canada’s Wonderland, the largest amusement park in Canada and one of the most popular places for family fun during the summer in southern Ontario. It has dozens of thrill rides and rollercoasters, and if you find a day when the lines aren’t too long, it is an incredible way to spend a summer day.

But I didn’t always love roller coasters. My first trip to Canada’s Wonderland happened when I was around 8 years old. It was a trip with my best friend Mike and our fathers. The newest ride that year was a thrilling suspended coaster called the Vortex, where the cars dangled and swayed below the track rather than above it. The Vortex coaster begins its journey with its track climbing straight up the side of a human-made mountain and then hurtling itself down the other side.

As a young boy, just the sight of this thing sent a chill down my spine. I expressed my concern as soon as we entered the park that day and then spent the morning trying to steer our group toward calmer and more manageable “kiddie rides.” Unfortunately that plan only worked for so long.

The others professed that if I only gave rollercoasters a chance, I would love them. They told me how great it was to feel the speed and rush of the wind in my face and the excitement of the experience.

I managed to avoid some of the other coasters in the park but eventually the time came to tackle the Vortex. My heart was pounding as we stood in line and I felt dizzy as we climbed into the car and pulled the restraints into position.

I assumed that I had all the information I needed to prove that rollercoasters weren’t for me. Granted, the people in my life told me that they were incredible and something that should be savored and appreciated, but I had watched from a distance and I already knew that I would hate them.

And then it dawned on me: if I just kept my eyes closed, I could pretend that I wasn’t even on the ride! So as soon as I felt the first lurch up the hill, I squeezed my eyes as tightly closed as I could.

It turns out that it was actually a far more terrifying experience for me to be hurled and jerked around corners and through the air with my eyes closed than it was with them open. I was so thankful when the cars pulled back into the station and the ride came to the end. I had heroically survived the experience, and no one needed to even know how I had accomplished this feat.

There are so many ways in which we make up our mind long before we ever experience something. We trust what we’ve learned to make assumptions about whether something is good or bad, godly or evil, just or unjust, fair or unfair.

On a recent 3rd Way Collective spring break service and learning trip to Washington, D.C., we had a student with us who had never connected with our student organization before. This student was a friend of one of our student officers, and with a desire to do some kind of service during the break, he decided to join us for the trip.

Halfway through the trip, we were at a cafe together early one morning getting a cup of coffee. He leaned forward and with a touch of embarrassment he apologized for never connecting with 3rd Way Collective. His friend, our student officer, had been telling him about 3rd Way for several months. He heard that we were a welcoming space that was working at social justice issues on our campus and in our community, attempting to be fully present where needed. But every time he imagined what a Christian student club experience would look like, he thought about his conservative Christian upbringing–one that required religious conformity, with a heavy dose preaching and condemnation of those who didn’t fit a specific mold. He thought about groups who built walls to keep people out and rarely ventured outside of them.

He was so convinced that 3rd Way Collective would be that way that he was unwilling to even consider attending an event on campus. The service trip seemed to offer enough actual service that he thought he could just avoid or ignore me and my religious preaching during the trip. After several days, he wanted to apologize.

His eyes had been opened to the possibilities that a minister could be something different–a person who asks questions and offers life experiences rather than hard-line black and white preaching. He discovered a religious organization that had tolerance for a spectrum of religious thoughts and opinions, that works and collaborate with other groups, and that was willing to make faith practical and live it out.

He had to experience it himself; he had to actually live it out to have his opinion change.

If you’re like me you’ve been seeing an abundance of reports of late highlighting how challenging it is to change a particular opinion these days. It turns out that statistics and data play a very small role in how we determine our beliefs.

We’re discovering the challenge of something called “confirmation bias”, which is the tendency we all have to embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject any information that contradicts our beliefs. We keep to our isolated silos, connecting only with those who think similarly to ourselves.

I’ve been wrestling with this very trait on campus at Penn State. Many of my peers who also work on justice issues are realizing that on an affluent campus like ours, a significant portion of the people in our student body have never experienced injustice. This lack of experience means that they are far less likely to ever feel compelled to work for a more just community, country or world. No amount of statistical data or information will convince them otherwise: they must first feel or experience injustice in their own life or in the life of someone they know.

I don’t exactly remember whether it was on that particular trip to Canada’s Wonderland or some time after, but at some point while riding terrified on a coaster I had a blip of courage that allowed me to crack my eyes open just a tiny bit. To my utter shock and surprise the experience was far better than I had ever imagined. In fact, I discovered that it was actually quite enjoyable, especially compared to my coping mechanism of riding with my eyes closed! It wasn’t long after that I pronounced myself a genuine rollercoaster fan, wanting to try anything bigger and faster than the one before.

We all are in need of more stories and experiences different from our own so that we might embrace the possibility that even our most determined and certain beliefs can be shaped in a new way. If I had never embraced the experience, I’m sure I never would have changed my mind and found my new truth.

Ben Wideman is Campus Pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a campus ministry at Penn State University launched in the fall of 2014 by University Mennonite Church.

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