Sunday, April 11, 2021

Things Worth Believing

Total honesty

In the delightful movie from 2003, Secondhand Lions, a young boy is left for the summer in the company of his two granduncles, who may or may not have lived the swashbuckling lives suggested by their stories. The kernel of their existence, it seems, is embedded in the speech that one of the uncles gives him concerning “what every boy needs to know about being a man.” We never get the whole speech, but here is the part that’s given:

“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most: that people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; that love, true love, never dies … No matter if they’re true or not, a man should believe in those things because those are the things worth believing in.”


We live in a cynical age, where most believe and repeat the thought that people left on their own recognizance are feckless and stupid, if not basically evil; where virtue is sneered at, courage is disparaged, and honor is a word out of the history books; where money and power are worshipped as basic goods to be obtained; where evil lurks in the heart of big corporations and/or big government, and these impersonal forces always win; where love is just another excuse for chasing after sex. In such an age, this speech by an old man should be held up to the light and examined, because it practically defines the idea of personal character.

We spend a lot of time these days trying to determine what is true, what is real, and too often what is useful. We forget that life happens in the moment. When a test of character comes at you, you cannot always be fretting about what may or may not be true. Usually, you can’t even know what’s true, or you don’t have the time to try to figure it out. In those moments that decide a person’s life, you just have to clench your jaw, set your mind, recall the things you actually believe in, and act as your better nature directs. And then you have to accept the consequences, come what may. Life is short. Character is all. And you never, or almost never, get a do-over.

So yes, sometimes you have to believe in things whether they are true or not, because they are necessary to good actions, proper choices, and happy outcomes. Also, because they are beautiful thoughts and will make you feel warm and secure.

But is this always the course to take? Should believing things, true or not, because these thoughts are worth believing, be the complete prescription for an examined life?1 I think that opens a door into outer darkness.

For example, the belief in a personal, omnipresent, and omniscient god—whether or not it’s true that a great being exists outside of human space and time and watches our every move—does have a tempering effect on society. People seem to function better when they believe they live in a spiritual panopticon,2 with someone, somewhere observing and judging their every action and holding them to a moral standard. It is also a beautiful thought that this universe has purpose, intention, meaning, and a conscious design; that life on this planet, especially human life, is more than just mindless growth, like bacteria or a tumor; that existence is more than circumstance, happenstance, and chaos; that someone, somewhere has a benevolent hand on the controls. As the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal is supposed to have said, “That’s the way to bet.”

But not everyone feels the need or perceives the active presence of a supreme being to watch over his or her actions and mete out punishment as necessary. Some of us have been raised in the humanist tradition, where reason and observed mechanisms of reciprocity and fair dealing govern our actions. And we are comfortable with the observations and hypotheses of scientific reasoning to determine what is actually going on in the universe, without the need for any guiding hand. So … is the concept of a benevolent, all-controlling, spiritual presence still something “worth believing” for these people?

For another example, the idea that human nature is perfectible—whether or not our actions and desires are partly informed by evolutionary biology, rather than a purely social construct that we can change at will—is an idea that attracts every generation of sociologists and political theorists. It is the beautiful thought that we, or some subset of human thinkers and activists, can create a paradise on Earth if only we can equalize human differences; eliminate the very human failings of greed and envy, anxieties about future security and personal advantage, and indeed all consciousness of self and family; and bring all humanity together by eliminating differences of opinion, the pursuit of private property and private enterprise, and adherence to national borders and national identity.3 This outcome would actually require rigid control of every aspect of life by the government or by a unified political party. But in the thinking and telling of these dreamers, the government itself withers away, people just become selfless and “good,” and all the turning points of human history—the crowning of kings, the wars of conflict and conquest, the disruptions of philosophical change and technological invention, the fluctuations of drought and flood, the surge and fade of the business cycle—all disappear into an endless, timeless human paradise.

But some of us value our own thoughts, ideals, and values, and we are not willing to give them up in the name of a presumed harmony. We value our freedom of action, while respecting the freedoms and independent agency of others, even if those freedoms lead to occasional conflicts and transient unhappiness. We love and strive for the safety and security of our families as the carriers of our unique genetic identity. We can recognize that people are different, and some of those differences result in groups, tribes, cultures, and nations that are not willing to sink into a homogeneous blandness, despite the promise of paradise. Although we recognize common traits among all human beings and common elements in all human societies, we still like to do things after our own fashion. Some of us are just stubborn that way. So … is the dream of a secular paradise through worldwide social and communal sharing still “worth believing” for the rest of us?

I could go on. Some ideas are so necessary and beautiful that they just have to be real, or you just have to believe them against a background of unbelief, chaos, and conflicting personal preferences. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder; so are truth and values. I find the sentiments of the uncle’s speech about manhood in the movie beautiful because they coincide with what I was taught as a child and have always felt. A serious religious thinker finds the invocation of a benevolent and all-powerful god beautiful because it is what he or she has always believed. And a dedicated socialist or communist finds the end of history in a form of secular paradise beautiful because the inconsistencies and internal failings of every other political and economic system are just too painful to imagine.

So … no. Some things are not to meant to be believed just because they are the things “worth believing in.” Or rather, they are not meant for everybody, not universal, and not to be rigidly applied. In this, as in every other aspect of human life, each person is required to pick and choose for him- or herself. All we can ask is that they choose wisely.

1. Socrates—that old rascal idolized by Plato—is supposed to have said at his trial, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That thought, too, has shaped generations of high school and college students. It certainly shaped me.

2. That is 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s model of the perfect prison. The prisoners’ cells are arranged in a circle with the doors facing inward, each door with a covered spyhole, and a guard roving up and down the inner hallway, randomly observing and noting the prisoner’s actions. The prisoner never knows when he is being observed and might be called up for punishment. … And George Orwell thought he had a handle on repressive societal schemes!

3. Consider all the verses of the John Lennon song Imagine, which just about sum up all the attributes of a passionless human perfection. I’ve always found this song insipid, if not outright wrong-headed and stupid. And the tune is just mournful.

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