Belief is a word that hasn’t been thrown around from so many different directions. It hasn’t been used as a political weapon to the degree that most of the other words I’ve written about have. Maybe it doesn’t belong in “Wordplay” at all. Its usage and apparent meaning are fairly close to its dictionary definition. Though it is often used in connection with religion, its actual definition is much broader, and how I use it here is closer to the broader definition. I use it to mean any motivation (because essentially belief is motivation) which moves us, even such a simple thing as getting up in the morning. I’ll put belief in quotes when I mean the “Belief” I’m referring to, rather than the generic word; belief.
We as a species have a compulsion toward contrivance. We want a plan, a scheme, or we do things with artifice. We admire a well executed plan, we long to be able to see five moves ahead as though life is a chess game. We have to believe in a plan, that our lives have structure and therefore “meaning”. More than anything we want to believe in a Grand Plan. And in the absence of a Grand Plan revealing itself to us, we will create one ourselves and with time confuse it with one that was revealed to us.
This is what I have observed in my few years (though more than average) here on earth. I have grown to know about these things, things which we all have in common. I prefer not to ridicule any specific “Belief”; or in my words, any specific Story about what the Grand Plan is. Even those who claim there is no Grand Plan have a “Belief”; and often their “Belief “exceeds what we as tiny specks in a universe with an infinitesimal glimpse of Time could possibly know. My own preference is to hold on lightly to my “Belief” and not grasp for any particular Grand Plan, and I usually resent it when others try to foist their “Belief” onto me. I guess I resent their confidence, because I know at least enough to know that we should never have confidence in such things. The biggest part of gaining wisdom, is gaining the knowledge of how little it is we can actually know. To quote from a friend’s translation of the Tao Te Ching:
“The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way.
The name possible to express runs counter to the constant name.
Without description, the universe began.
Of the describable universe, the origin.”
Such an approach to “Belief” leaves a rather foggy view of existence. As soon as you draw a picture of how the universe works, you look at it and realize how much is missing and how much is wrong with the picture. So you start over again, thinking this time it will be much more accurate but over and over again it needs to be revised. It is almost as though reality itself changes, though it is more likely that our perception of reality changes. And from my own experiences and observations this rings true.
Science is an example of a process that attempts to compile knowledge without using “Belief”. And it has been very useful to our species in helping to create great comfort to us all. Of course the word “science” like all words, evolve with use and begin to split off in several different directions. But the idea remains; “observation without prejudice”, only when one lets go of “Belief” can they truly observe without prejudice. Like Star Treks’ Spock it is probably a goal unachievable by humankind, only an imaginary alien species can achieve such a thing. We need “Belief” in ways that we often fail to realize. We need to believe that our family or tribe will continue to accept us. We need to believe that those things we worked on throughout our lives are important in someway. We need to believe that whatever difficulties we face at present, things will get better. They are things not so much based on observable experience, rather they are things which have a strong component of hope about the future.
Our expectations based on experience can give use structure. We expect that the next day will be something like the last day. We expect that the Sun will rise at a certain time and it will set at a certain time. We expect that people will react to us pretty much the same as they have in the past. We expect the our means of maintaining ourselves with food and shelter will not change drastically from one day to the next. This is the structure of our lives, things which are knowable. But it is with “Belief” that we look toward that unknowable future; wondering and hoping.
So I have three words dealing with the future; “expectation”, “Belief” and “hope”. The first; “expectation” grounded in experience, the third; “hope” more of a dream about the future, and “Belief” is locked between the two as though it is a chemical process occurring when “hope” and “expectation” are mixed together.
It is our human compulsion for contrivance which wants to categorize “Belief”. We have created such categories as; Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindi, Mormonism, Baha’i, Animist, Methodist, Unitarian, Atheist, Agnostic, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Mormonism, Lutheran, Fundamentalist….but these are only the formal names. Each individual carries with them their own “Belief” system, sometimes based on one of these formal models and sometimes based on a less formal set of observations. But essentially it is all the same thing; a map depicting “Reality”, sometimes drawn with a communal set of beliefs, and sometimes drawn with a set of beliefs based on personal observation. Why do we need such a thing? How close to “Reality” is each particular map? Does creating our map of “Reality” change actual “Reality”? I confess, that I am not a strong believer in such maps. From what I can observe “Reality” does have a curious paradoxical nature: “The way possible to think, runs counter to the constant way”. Thought can not capture “Reality”, but we will never stop trying.
Our thoughts can never be still. What I write here is just another contrivance, without the history or the adherents or the depth and texture of the formal religions I listed above. None of that makes it a greater or lesser contrivance, just a different kind of contrivance. Animals don’t seem to have such a compulsion to create such mind-maps. That makes me guess that these mind maps were a very important part of our own evolution. We may call it intelligence or self-awareness or some other word which makes us feel superior but really it is just one of those distinguishing attributes of our species. Like an elephant has a trunk, we have a need to lay a thought-pattern onto everything around us. It is our blessing but also our curse.
Our “Belief” becomes essential to helping us form these mind-maps. The scientific approach can create expectations using observations; if the Sun rises everyday for the last million years then it will probably rise again tomorrow. But we need something more than expectations. We need something to be hopeful about. We need that feeling of being special somehow. This is where our mind-maps come into play; they help us convince ourselves we are special in some way. Even the Atheist who eschews any connection to some mysterious higher power, still focuses on the “intelligence” of the human race as being special or maybe it is humans’ capacity for empathy the “non-believer” revers. Finding motivation without that sense of specialness is a difficult thing. Many of us fall into depression and addiction when we have lost that sense of specialness, or it has been taken from us because of ill fortune or abuse.
On an individual level, “Belief” is essential to our own well-being. If we fail to discover our own reason-to-be then we tend fall into a pattern of self-destruction. On an individual level this need can be met through family, friends, work or self-reflection. But we also tend to form communal bonds and draw up pictures of our own specialness based on our community. This is what we call religion. Many of us look at the mind-maps created by the various religions and we want to believe. Even if those maps contradict our own individual observations and in fact are clearly absurd, we still want to believe. More than anything we seek structure and we seek meaning, that is what these mind-maps provide us with. We hope they are accurate; and we fear that they may not be. Without a Grand Plan some of us feel lost.
Often we have contrived feelings about “Belief”. As though it is something which can only be clung to with the use of will-power. There are “tests” of “Belief”. Hardships which one is supposed to endure. In most religions there are observations which challenge the believer, but then eventually turn around and prove the believer correct after all. The story of Noah, or the story of Abraham and Isaac are a couple examples from the Judeo/Christian mind-map. If the believer comes out in the end still believing then they have achieved a kind of specialness. They are on a higher level then the non-believer who gave up too soon. In some cases this might be seen as just doing the hard work first and saving the best for last but in other cases it requires the believer to ignore his own observations and be guided by “Belief” alone.
Is it possible to move forward without these mind-maps we call “Belief”? I would tend to say “no”, some kind of “Belief” is necessary for everyone; whether that “Belief” is focused on family, friends or a more formal community, it is what animates our lives. This is why solitary confinement must be so devastating to an individual. But we all have very different approaches when acting out our “Beliefs”. Our relationship to our own chosen mind-maps and our opinion of the mind-maps of other’s vary greatly. Some of us are plodding musicians who can only hang onto a few songs and fight fiercely for those songs and we resent all other songs. But many of us have a more amorphous belief system. Having heard so many different songs and liking so many different combinations of notes we do not need to cling so tightly. I attempt to approach “Belief” in this amorphous manner; holding softly and letting go easily, moving gracefully from moment to moment. It is a message that life sends us with experience. It is the youth and inexperience in us which wants to believe ardently and hang on fiercely to a particular set of beliefs. With age we have a chance to hear the message of the many songs, but not always. Many is the mature person who becomes more narrow, more resentful of others’ songs. Sometimes experience enlightens us, sometimes it embitters us. It is the wise person who grows to know, not with intellect but with their being.
Achieving that gold medal, winning the spelling bee, becoming a national champion, changing the world, these are all dreams of youth. Achieving the “Nirvana” of each particular “Belief” system is a very youthful approach to life, there is passion, there is ambition, there is meaning, there is drive and there is energy. In some cases “Nirvana” is actually an achievable goal; such as winning an Olympic Gold Medal, in other cases it is more of an ideal; such as achieving world peace. But in both cases the pursuit always remains. Once a goal has been achieved then the next goal awaits. We are like the horse, always chasing the carrot at the end of the stick. This is how these mind-maps give structure and “meaning” to our lives, always providing us with new goals to achieve.
After making such a claim; that life is essentially a Sisyphean pursuit, it would seem the natural next step is that I should posit a “solution”. It would have to be a solution that lies beyond “Belief” and beyond these pictures of reality (these mind-maps) we create for ourselves, something more substantial. I will refrain from trying however. Maybe when I was youthful I had a passion for such a thing, but no longer. But I will say this; that they are all just “pictures”, and how can we draw an accurate picture when we are inside the picture? Of course that doesn’t stop us from trying to draw an accurate mind-map of “Reality”, it is our never-ending pursuit.
“Beliefs” are not a choice, they are part of what we are. We are self-conscious so we observe, we look toward the future so we need hope. By joining the two, we build our lives with the flame of “Belief”. “Belief” is that burning edge of life, like a flame burning an endless wick. There is what we know from the recent and distant past, there is what we hope for in the future, but “Belief” is where we live; between the two. All we can do is try to remember that it is only a picture we draw in our own minds.