Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Where Does Belief Come From?

Why do we believe the things we do?  A complex question, but one I enjoy thinking about.  There used to be a series on NPR called "This I Believe."  Random people would record a 2-minute statement of what they believed: love rules the world, nature heals, education is (or is not) all it's cracked up to be.  That sort of thing.  Not necessarily religious belief, but something you carry with you in your core.

I used to know someone who was accused of preferring things to people.  Knowing that person, I'd have to agree.  "These fragments I have shored against my ruin" seems to encapsulate his attitude toward his possessions.  Margaret Thatcher once said, there's no such thing as "society."  I've always thought of her as an Ayn Rand sort of person, who puts the individual above all else.  Sometimes it's an activity that shapes a life.  My brother is an artist and has been since he was two years old, perhaps earlier.  He's 75 now, and he is still and always has been a painter.  Making art is the way he sees the world.  And, of course, there are those for whom religion is central.  I have come to believe that religious feeling is simply another way of seeing the world.  Religion, art, music, politics, literature, public service, acquisitiveness, the need to control, the need to submit (not a complete list)--all provide angles of vision that shape whatever belief system we may have.  This kind of belief, like personality, is not something we choose.  It is who we are.  That is why logic is often insufficient, persuasion ineffective, and true conversion rare.

An Islamic fundamentalist intent on restoring the caliphate, had he been born in Alabama, would no doubt be a foot-washing Baptist.  It is our minds that matter, far more than the message.  Belief comes from within; then we find rationalizations to support it.  Everything we think is an attempt to wrench the world into the shape we already see.  So what do I believe?

When I was a young child, I overheard the adults talking about the Hungarian Revolution.  I had no idea where Hungary was or what the people were revolting against, but I picked up enough to know that innocent people were suffering.  I wanted to do something to help--collect clothes to send them, anything.  I didn't, of course, but I thought a lot about it.

My parents used to take us to Youngstown, Ohio, just over the border from Pennsylvania, where we lived, to go shopping in the big department stores there.  Getting downtown meant driving through a poor, African-American neighborhood.  The streets were so unlovely I could not understand how anyone could live there.  I remember once passing an old man who was waiting at a stoplight to cross the street.  He looked so sad.  The image of this poor old man, bowed with the weight of years and who knows what sorrows, pierced me like a shard of glass.  Our car moved on and left him behind, still standing in the same place.

When I was in the eighth grade, a poor family was burned out of their house just before Christmas.  I rounded up some friends, and we all bought gifts for the children.  My dad drove us to their rundown neighborhood, a place I never went otherwise, and we delivered the packages.  What I remember is an empty room with bare floors, a worried woman who stood in a doorway and spoke not at all, and a toddler, dressed only in a diaper, running about barefoot.  The emptiness was like the inside of a bell. 

The sadness in other people's lives is something I have always been aware of.  I don't remember a time when I didn't know that I was lucky and many others were not.  How could I be happy, knowing that so many were broken and alone?  I still ask myself the same question.  This all sounds rather depressing, and it is.  So how do I manage not to drown in the pity I constantly feel?

There are two things I base my life on: love and beauty.  To me, love means giving comfort, nurturing, supporting, and encouraging another person(s).  Lacking a human being, I would need a pet to care for.  I'm sure most people would feel the same way, or say they do, but I can never know if others feel what I feel.  I believe in MY feelings.  I don't have to do anything to feel these emotions any more than a believer has to do anything to believe in a religion.  My core--and I say this not to boast but simply to describe--is empathy.  It is natural for me to put myself in another's shoes and feel what I would feel in their situation.  When my teenage children went through break-ups, my heart was broken as well.  When my grandson wants his "lamby," I want him to have it.  If I cherished something, wouldn't I want to hold onto it too?  I don't always act in accordance with my own deepest values, but when I don't I feel tremendously guilty.  Shame is what you feel when you are caught by others doing something amiss.  It is related to embarrassment.  Guilt is your judgment of yourself, and for me that is far more unforgiving.  I am not religious, but when the Bible says that of faith, hope, and love the greatest of these is love, I have no trouble agreeing at all.

Love is my connection to other people; beauty is my connection to the world.  A melting Mozart aria, the clarity of a Bach fugue, the lushness of a Beethoven symphony are all enough to push me toward the sublime.  The paintings of Monet, the poems of W. H. Auden, a beautiful garden take me places I can't get to on my own.  I prefer a panorama to a pinpoint, an ennobling idea to an ideology, a wilderness to an urban grid.  I believe people are more important than ideas, philosophies, religions, ideologies, abstractions of any kind.  I believe justice is conditional and truth elusive.  If I had to choose one philosopher, it would be J.S. Mill.  If I had my life to live over, I'd do things differently, but I'm glad I don't, because I want to be right here, right now, right where I am.  If it's the past that got me here, then of course I wouldn't change it, pain and all.  I hope it doesn't sound cruel to say it, but I wouldn't be so happy if I weren't so aware of the unhappiness that lies just off-shore of every life.  Virgil wrote of "the tears in things."  I believe he would understand what I am talking about.