From Pro-Life to Pro-Choice to Peace

Hello dear. I hope you’re well. I’ve got a tough topic for us today. I’m going to share my journey … about my beliefs on abortion.

You probably have opinions on this topic, and they’re probably very strong and deeply rooted in emotion. That’s how it is for me, too. I had to remember to breathe a lot when I was writing this, so I expect you’ll need to take breathing breaks when you are reading it. Do that. Before I get started, I want to acknowledge that this is a complex issue and I am not going to be excavating that complexity here. One example: I am going to use the terms Pro-Life and Pro-Choice because in my story, those terms represent how I identified at the time that I held those beliefs. I honor the power of language (and even wrote about it here!), but this is not the place for an exposition on labels. Likewise, a lot of other complexity is not going to get air time in this piece. Lastly, I want you to know the words I share here are infused with love and healing. I’m not here to try to change your mind. I’m here to tell a story about my own beliefs and how they shifted over time. I hope that no matter where your beliefs fall, you’ll find something in my story that resonates with you. If it does, please take it with you. If what I’ve said here doesn’t serve you, leave it. With that said, let’s begin at the beginning.

I learned about abortion when I was a sophomore in high school, in class called Religion. I actually didn’t trust my own memory on this so I texted two classmates from high school to confirm that this was, in fact, the name of the class. In that class, I learned: life begins at conception, babies are alive from the moment of conception, and abortion kills these babies. Part of the curriculum included watching videos of an abortion being performed. By Divine Intervention, I was absent on that day. I heard it was gruesome. But I didn’t need to be present to know that abortion was murder and that I was staunchly opposed.

Well into my 20s, throughout college and travels abroad, I stood firmly in these beliefs. When they were challenged, a specific kind of discomfort arose. It was deep, angry, red, hot, and fierce. And I did whatever I had to, said whatever I needed to, to make that discomfort go away.

For me, that usually meant deciding a person was not actually as kind and loving as I’d initially thought and distancing myself from them. More accurately, I usually decided that a Pro-Choice person was a heartless murder apologist. Sometimes I was soothed by assuring myself they just didn’t know any better yet and I needed to educate them (and in the process of educating them, I denied all information they tried to share with me about their point of view). Here is actual footage of me “listening” to someone with different beliefs.

And then I went to graduate school to study public health. I started learning things about abortion that DID NOT square with my existing beliefs. It was the first time in my life that I learned anything about abortion outside of Religion class. It was the first time I heard stories from women who had had abortions and didn’t regret them. It was the first time I heard a lot of things. Honestly, that didn’t matter too much though. Discomfort arose and this new information was easy for me to deny. Are you familiar with this feeling? Your blood boils when someone says something that doesn’t align with your beliefs. The words on your tongue (or at the tips of your fingers) ignite.

That discomfort arose somewhere else, too. In therapy. I started therapy out of desperation, really. I’d had a few sessions with a therapist in high school and was known to pop in to the counseling center during college, but in graduate school I started seeing a counselor every week. One of the first things my therapist honed in on was a set of beliefs I held about myself. I believed that other people were constantly judging me, and that my “friends” just put up with me out of the kindness of their hearts. I told her that I didn’t truly believe anybody liked me. So, she gave homework: to write down every single compliment and piece of positive feedback that I received from other humans. I fucking hated that homework. Before, whenever a compliment would come my way, I could swat it away and deny it. The discomfort caused by positive feedback from other people conflicted with my beliefs so strongly that it was painful to record. I continued to see her every week for almost an entire school year. I don’t want to brush past this part like a montage in a movie, but I have to, because I need to get back to abortion. I’ll say this: therapy is hard work. I showed up for an hour every week and I did hard, uncomfortable work and my therapist held space for me and believed in my ability to teach my brain to think differently. She was instrumental in my personal growth, and so was I. Bit by bit, it became more bearable to hear and believe the things people said, even when they conflicted with my own strongly held beliefs. I learned I didn’t need to fear that blood boiling feeling of discomfort. That I could breathe when the tightness in my chest started to grip me. That I could listen to a compliment from someone else and not have to deny or trivialize or explain it away. I learned to be able to hold two conflicting things in my mind at the same time and stand in discomfort.

Over the years, new information about abortion trickled in. I still swatted away a lot of it. Gradually at first, and then all at once, I found myself identifying as Pro-Choice. And radically so. I believed women should get to choose what happens to their bodies every single time. I became infuriated over the complex web of rules and systems that kept sex education out of reach of kids like me, that made birth control so hard to access, and then tried to make abortion illegal too. I felt like it was a huge conspiracy designed to keep women subjugated, and I was FURIOUS at Pro-Lifers who just didn’t GET it. How could anyone believe they had the right to make laws about what women can and can’t do with their bodies? Why did one group’s religious beliefs about life beginning at conception have so much influence? Who was I or anyone else to judge what was right for another woman? It’s not an exaggeration to say that I went nuclear in the opposite direction. It was extremely stressful to find myself so angry at the same beliefs I used to hold. I held fast to my new beliefs, confident that I’d transitioned from close-minded to open-minded and that here in the Promised Land of liberal ideals, I would finally feel free.

I was so, so wrong.

While the beliefs and the words I used to describe them had changed… my internal experience stayed the same. That dragon discomfort was right where I left it. I got a knot in my stomach when I met someone new and discovered that they identified as Pro-Life. I could judge a person’s goodness and morality by their beliefs on this one issue. And while my measuring stick for “good person” and “bad person” had changed, it felt the same. The wall that divided US and THEM had not moved. Had I even moved?

While all this was happening, I’d stopped doing that homework I told you about earlier. I wasn’t consciously engaging in the practice of confronting my discomfort anymore and the muscles I’d strengthened to be able to do it so well had gotten weak. Just as the ability to bear to the discomfort had shown up in many areas of my life, my inability to bear it showed up. Which brings us to another movie montage: recognizing that I hated the feeling of anger that welled up inside of me set me off on a path of searching for peace. Yoga, meditation, more therapy, tons of reading, listening to podcasts, and TED talks. I have a natural inclination to learn all of the things, but I became particularly focused on finding peace.

So here we are, today. I’ve continued taking in new information. I still swat some of it away, but I consistently practice noticing when I feel discomfort rear its head. And I take an extra breath or two to consider whether I can allow a new belief or bit of information to co-exist with an existing one even if it seems contradictory. The shift that matters most to me, though, is this one: I don’t get that raging fire in my throat when I encounter someone who doesn’t share my beliefs. I don’t feel the urge to spit acidic insults at them or make them a “bad person”. Many people feel this urge and give in to it. I get it. It is one of the greatest sources of pain in our conversations about differing beliefs. So much so that I’m planning to write another piece focused on why we feel the urge to say and believe ugly things about people with different beliefs. But before we go there, we need to get comfortable being really uncomfortable.

You see, this journey wasn’t so much about understanding abortion as it was about learning to cope with discomfort. As I learned to notice and name the tightness in my chest that arose when I heard someone who had a different belief, my stance softened, and my heart opened. Where I used to hold tightly to a singular belief that abortion was murder and wrong without any exceptions, I now recognize that every person’s life circumstance, and beliefs are so different that I can’t possibly reduce this decision down to right OR wrong. I hold my own personal beliefs about abortion and whether it would be the right choice for me, and I simultaneously support safe and legal access to abortion and every woman’s right to choose for herself whether it is the best option for her life.

This new space I find myself in also offers me a precious gift: peace. I don’t feel angry when I learn that someone I know identifies as Pro-Life. I can see and honor their deep commitment to their beliefs, and I can understand that it might even stem from the same well of justice and compassion that my own beliefs stem from. Brené Brown writes beautifully about how harmful US vs THEM mentalities are, and I’ve found that to be true in my own life. When I let discomfort overwhelm me, I retreat into my beliefs, draw lines in the sand, and deem THEM to be bad and wrong. I don’t do that as often anymore. It feels really good.

I know I told you this was a story about my journey and beliefs on abortion, but it’s really a story about finding peace. I believe we can create better solutions when we work together, and that standing on opposite sides of a line in the sand screaming at each other is not how we will thrive. It’s not. Brené says: people are hard to hate close-up, move in. That’s my invitation to you: move in. If it’s too hard to move in to the real people in your life and learn about their beliefs, move in to your own discomfort. Try taking my therapy homework and making it work for you: look for and record information that challenges your beliefs.

hands-clasped-yours-illustration-3.jpg

People are hard to hate close-up. Move in.

Brené Brown

photo credit: Kylah Benes-Trapp

Here are a few ideas to humanize the “other side”. (Try your best to acknowledge the feelings that come up with the inevitable mention of politics and keep your focus on seeing the humanity in the individual people you encounter with these exercises):

  • Ask someone you know whose beliefs on abortion differ from yours to share a specific story, moment, experience, or piece of information with you that is crucial/or important to them on this issue (try an acquaintance if asking a close friend or family member is too tough). That’s it. Just listen and record it.

  • Read one or more stories from women who hold each of these beliefs. Check in with yourself to see how you feel when reading them. Try to name the feeling and describe how it feels in your body. See if you can allow these stories to be true without swatting them away and hold them right alongside your existing beliefs.

    If you identify as Pro-Life, try these stories: http://nymag.com/news/features/abortion-stories-2013-11/

    If you identify as Pro-Choice, try these stories: https://www.liveaction.org/news/the-top-pro-life-stories-that-moved-the-world-in-2017/

What does the discomfort feel like for you? What are the thoughts you think to yourself (or the things you say out loud) to bring things back into balance when the discomfort gets to be overwhelming? Do you tell yourself that your family members are standing up for murder? Do you say that your friends don’t value women and want to control their bodies? And most importantly, how does that feel? If it doesn’t feel good, I am here to suggest that it may not be working all that well for you. Perhaps moving in, standing in the discomfort, and discovering your shared humanity will feel a bit better. I know it did for me. My wish for us all is to find more peace in our lives and relationships.