I’m in the middle of this book and it has me thinking. How do we know if what we believe in is “right?”
Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag.” In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.
Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when Tara’s older brother became violent.
Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.
In this book, the author’s father seems to feel that his beliefs, perspectives, and ideas are right and that God inspires them. His view and ideas contradict with my thoughts and thinking. His religious beliefs conflict with my religious beliefs, yet we share the same membership in the same Church. We are both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, yet our beliefs are not united. He would most likely look at my perspectives and views and say that I am “off” and have I have been deceived. While I look at his perspectives and beliefs, and I feel that he is “off” and that he has become blind.
I was just reading this morning from The Book of Mormon, scriptures that the author’s father also studies. I read, “And thus we see that the Lord began to pour out his Spirit upon the Lamanites, because of their easiness and willingness to believe in his word (Helaman 6:36).”
How do you know that the source that you so easily and are willing to believe is right?
And just a few sentences further from that phrase I read, “the band of robbers of Gadianton…had seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe in their words (Helman 6:38).”
So it seems that if you are willing to believe you run the risk of being seduced by false and destructive ideas. So how does one find truth? How do you know what ideas, beliefs, and perspectives are right? Is believing an act of strength? Or do you surrender your power when you choose to believe?
Instead of using the word “right“, I think the word “virtuous” helps sorts through the confusion. Are your ideas, beliefs, and perspectives virtuous? Do they add to your strength?
“Humility is not the absence of discernment, or the lack of a position, or decision about what you think is right. You have to be willing to discern and make judgments to be a force of good in the world. It’s just that you’re willing to course correct when needed.
A virtuous behavior in my mind is anything that creates that deepening strength or creates something good, that benefits and blesses the people in our lives and ourselves through the behavior.”
Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife
I am far from the first critic to recommend Tara Westover’s astounding memoir, “Educated,” but if its comet tail of glowing reviews has not yet convinced you, let me see what I can do. Westover was born sometime in September, 1986—no birth certificate was issued—on a remote mountain in Idaho, the seventh child of Mormon survivalist parents who subscribed to a paranoid patchwork of beliefs well outside the mandates of their religion. The government was always about to invade; the End of Days was always at hand. Westover’s mother worked as a midwife and an herbal healer. Her father, who claimed prophetic powers, owned a scrap yard, where his children labored without the benefit of protective equipment. (Westover recounts accidents so hideous, and so frequent, that it’s a wonder she lived to tell her tale at all.) Mainstream medicine was mistrusted, as were schools, which meant that Westover’s determination to leave home and get a formal education—the choice that drives her book, and changed her life—amounted to a rebellion against her parents’ world.
This story, remarkable as it is, might be merely another entry in the subgenre of extreme American life, were it not for the uncommon perceptiveness of the person telling it. Westover examines her childhood with unsparing clarity, and, more startlingly, with curiosity and love, even for those who have seriously failed or wronged her. In part, this is a book about being a stranger in a strange land; Westover, adrift at university, can’t help but miss her mountain home. But her deeper subject is memory. Westover is careful to note the discrepancies between her own recollections and those of her relatives. (The ones who still speak to her, anyway. Her parents cut her off long ago.) “Part of me will always believe that my father’s words ought to be my own,” she writes. If her book is an act of defiance, a way to set the record of her own life straight, it’s also an attempt to understand, even to respect, those whom she had to break away from in order to get free.