22 August, 2008

Do our beliefs help us, or hurt us?

Location: entrenched places
Mood: doubt

I have been thinking a lot about beliefs lately. Part of this has involved pondering some questions about the process of forming beliefs, and their origins and importance to our lives. While I am not yet ready to go very deep into that topic, I do want to say a little bit about beliefs in general.

Obviously, most people have some attachment to whatever it is that they believe. Something about that word "belief" practically implies a tight hold. There are a million topics about which people have beliefs. These could include things such as taxes, god, having children, not having children, criminal justice, diet, politics, education, history, evolution, money, importance of family, love, work habits, war, personal habits, sex, drugs, art, health care, death, aliens...

The list continues.

These beliefs help us to define a place for us in the world. They help us to make alliances and decisions that bring us some type of comfort and security. But sometimes I wonder if our beliefs actually cost us more than they provide to us.

Take, for example, relationships. One thing that many of us believe - as in, we rely upon it - is the notion that our relationships are stable. There is obvious reason for this. In order to put all of our energy into whatever day-to-day material endeavors we wish to pursue, it is very helpful to know that certain emotional, or potentially financial or logistical needs will not just disappear, leaving us struggling. But the problem with this belief is that some aspect of it is absolutely equivalent to the oft-negatively used phrase "taking it for granted". Go ahead and argue with that one. But what is the difference? If I say to you, I believe that you and I will be friends for ever, you'd think "Oh, that's very nice of him to say!" but if I say to you that I take our friendship for granted, you will see it in an entirely different light.

But that's what a belief is. It is a thing we take for granted.

And what happens when we take things for granted? Well, maybe we don't pay as close attention to the details that actually keep the various machines operating smoothly. We've already done that work, the machine is running smoothly, and now we can devote our resources to optimizing other machines in our lives.

Relationships offer us security so that we feel loved and safe and all that jazz. And I don't think it's entirely unique to humans. We just take it a little bit further than other animals do. You throw 5 mice in a cage together, and they will sleep together huddled in a cute little pile. They feel safer, warmer, and maybe even happier than if you put them in little adjacent cages where they can't get that closeness. That's their relationship. The mice don't have all sorts of other pursuits in life, besides basic survival. But that closeness is still one of their needs.

But what do we sacrifice by placing such importance on the permanence of these connections we make with others? Well, for one thing, we may limit ourselves. We give up certain freedoms in exchange for that stability and security. True? Of course. How can two people bond and both provide each other security and stability, without each giving up something. We call them compromises. We call them acts of love. When we're angry or hurt, we call them sacrifices. And we convince ourselves that the trade off is worth it because of all the other things it affords us.

But is it?

If our greatest capability as humans is the potential for extreme creativity, sometimes with absolutely no concrete goal other than the creation itself, then how are these trade-offs serving that type of goal?

Well, maybe our greatest capability is not the potential for extreme creativity? Maybe it's the capacity to give unbounded love? I don't know. I don't see a whole lot of evidence for that. The most miraculous (to steal that word) and human thing about us is that we synthesize things that do not obviously relate to our survival. Few other animals do that, and none as extensively as we do. And this creativity spans all cultures and takes on countless varieties.

So, I wonder if all of these things that we do to make ourselves feel safer and more secure, be they relationships, or any of an infinite number of other potential beliefs, actually make us more like the rest of the animal kingdom - acting purely in the service of preservation of the species.

But then again, much of the beauty that humans have created came about as the result, both positive and negative, of those connections we make with others... paintings, poetry, music, sculpture... all made to depict those intense feelings. Those who remain isolated may have a different type of creativity that is borne from the pain of isolation, or from devoting their lives to sensory experience of the world, rather than through connections.

I guess it's a mixed bag. And now I guess I just don't know.

1 comment:

  1. Something else to think about, for those of us who enjoy etymology and epistemology (courtesy of Merriam Webster):

    "opinion, view, belief, conviction, persuasion, sentiment mean a judgment one holds as true. opinion implies a conclusion thought out yet open to dispute [each expert seemed to have a different opinion]. view suggests a subjective opinion [very assertive in stating his views]. belief implies often deliberate acceptance and intellectual assent [a firm belief in her party's platform]. conviction applies to a firmly and seriously held belief [the conviction that animal life is as sacred as human]. persuasion suggests a belief grounded on assurance (as by evidence) of its truth [was of the persuasion that everything changes]. sentiment suggests a settled opinion reflective of one's feelings [her feminist sentiments are well-known]."