by Lincoln Sayger
Works of literature frequently demonstrate that our perceptions of others and our reactions to them are often strongly influenced by our beliefs. Our attitudes, priorities, and prejudices color the world we see. In addition, we frequently see what we expect to see, even when evidence points to the contrary. Gabriel García Márquez and Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrate that our beliefs determine our behaviors.
Márquez illustrates this concept in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." Because of the belief held by the people in Pelayo's town that the old man is an angel, they think about and react to him in a certain way. Since they think he's an angel, and they think angels come for the souls of the dying, they do not consider any possibility that he's come for some other reason than to take the child. Because of this belief, Pelayo imprisons the old man in the chicken coop and stays up all night guarding him with a club. When the baby recovers, they ignore this possibly contrary evidence. They also ignore Father Gonzaga's observations that the man speaks neither the local tongue nor Latin, that wings are not the primary factor in determining whether something is an angel, and that the old man is infected with parasites.
Hawthorne illustrates how our beliefs affect our actions in "Young Goodman Brown." Goodman Brown believes he is safe from the temptations of the devil, and he makes several poor decisions based on this belief. He holds this belief until he exchanges it for the belief that all he holds dear as good has gone to evil. These two beliefs manifest themselves in his actions. He goes into the woods at dusk, expecting to encounter evil, but thinking he can turn back at any time. Although he is led to believe that Goody Cloyse, his minister, and his deacon consort with his companion the devil, he still believes that he can escape. Brown despairs and relents completely, though, once he believes that his wife has given herself over to wickedness. Sadly, his relent comes without a second thought to heaven, the other half of the statement he has just made, "'With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand against the devil!'" When he stands before the seeming figures of his fellow townspeople and is on the brink of what he thinks is the point of no return --though he has already passed it-- Brown cries out to try to save Faith, because he believes that she is more important than himself or God.
After Goodman Brown's night in the forest, he ducks the blessing of his minister, wonders to whom the deacon prays, and snatches a child away from Goody Cloyse because he believes that these pious people are partaking in evil. Since he believes that Faith was in the woods with him, he snubs his wife. He fears the roof will fall in on his congregation and dies in gloom because he believes his faith is worthless. All of these things he believes in spite of the evidence to the contrary. When people doing evil find themselves in a community of people who partake in the same evil, they do not go to the trouble of putting on a facade. They come out into the open within their community. Also, Faith would not have tried to hold him back at dusk if she had been involved, nor would she have greeted him joyfully, as though nothing had happened, if she had been in the forest that night. Sadly, Brown ignores this evidence and dies without hope because of his beliefs.
What a person believes determines how that person behaves. In both of these stories, the beliefs held by the characters influence their perceptions and their reactions, causing them to make poor choices. One of the common choices made by these characters is the choice to ignore contrary evidence. We have a tendency to ignore evidence that doesn't fit our beliefs and our choices. How much do our beliefs color our decisions? Have we made any poor choices because we ignored things that didn't agree with what we perceived to be true? Some would discredit this concept. They would say that a person can believe whatever a person wants, and it won't make any difference. Unfortunately, one can see the influence beliefs have on actions by looking at fiction, as in the cases of Brown or Pelayo, or at history, as in the cases of John Wilkes Booth, Hitler, or Stalin. Throughout history and fiction, one can easily see that our beliefs affect our behavior.
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