October 28, 2022

Article at Medium

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My Believer Glands are Broken

AI image by DreamStudio

I believe stuff, but it doesn’t stick.

I am old now and throughout my life, people have put pressure on me to believe stuff. They still do. They tell me that believing certain things is very important. Sometimes I can do it. I wake up and I believe and I think I’ve got it. But a few days later, the belief is gone and I believe something different.

I have no clue where my beliefs come from and no ability to control them. You might offer me a bazillion dollars to believe that oranges are purple and I would walk away from the offer just as broke as when I met you. I can choose the breakfast cereal I want to eat, and I can choose my seat at the movies, but I cannot choose my beliefs. Like my friends, beliefs show up, hang around for a while, and then disappear.

Not only do people want me to believe certain things, they want me to continue believing those things for long periods of time. When I was doing graduate work at the university, the social science people wanted me to believe in the scientific method. I did, but it didn’t stick. When I was studying to become an Episcopalian, the clergy folks wanted me to believe in God. I believed. But not long enough to be accepted as one of them. I joined a twelve-step program that asked me to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. I believed that too, until the day I didn’t.

I think my believer glands are broken.

When I am in one of my scientific moods I attribute my beliefs to my logical and hard-nosed investigation of the world around me. When I am not, the thought of me being hard-nosed and logical makes me laugh. Faced with a beautiful sunrise, I may praise God, an act I look back on with embarrassment the next morning when I wake up atheist. Some days I am indifferent to science and religion equally.

Not all my beliefs change. If my hyper-sharp chef’s knife slips from my hand I believe that gravity will make it plummet to the kitchen floor. If I try to catch it in midair I believe I risk serious injury. I believe that putting my hand in fire will burn me and that to be socially accepted I should wear clothes when I go out in public. Those kinds of beliefs are solid. I think of them as hard beliefs, beliefs pounded into me by both logic and experience. My problem is with soft belief — those things one believes because of something someone has said or something in a book or something on the cable news. Beliefs about what is good, what is bad, what is going on, and how people ought to live.

My beliefs are controlled by a set of core values, but my core values change too, just not as quickly as my beliefs. My values shape-shift every twenty years. When I was fifteen, the best possible day was to skip school and spend the day skateboarding down the steepest hill in my neighborhood. Twenty years later, I would scoff at silliness like that. The proper day for a thirty-five-year-old was to work long hours, have a house with a mortgage and a vacation cabin, tend to three children, maintain professional relationships, play golf, and drink like a fish on weekends. Twenty years later, at the age of fifty-five, I despaired at how ridiculous that was. At fifty-five I wanted to be a respected leader in my profession, a mentor to younger lawyers, a bottomless well of professional knowledge, and a fount of wisdom. Now at seventy-one and retired, I think that was a bunch of crap.

But back to beliefs.

There is some predictability to what I believe. I tend not to believe in the spooky stuff: ghosts, Bigfoot, or the invisible hand of the market. And on most days I accept the sciency stuff: evolution, vaccination, and relativity. But I stray from those too.

My beliefs are influenced by the information I consume. After reading the novel, A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, I was Hindu for three months. Then one morning I woke up thinking that an old white guy from an American suburb cannot be a Hindu. That’s stupid. My Hinduism was gone.

Even though my beliefs change often, at any given moment everything I believe is right. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t believe it. I know that creates a paradox, so sometimes I try to estimate how much of what I believe is really correct. Maybe there is a percentage. Seventy percent seems reasonable. Maybe thirty percent of what I believe is wrong. But which thirty percent? And maybe the thirty percent figure is one of the things that is wrong. The problem is intractable. Or at least I believe it is.

I am jealous of people whose beliefs are fixed and stable. Waking up every day believing the same things you believed the day before must be comforting. Like living in Florida where the sun shines every day.

On the other hand, I have to ask. Don’t fixed beliefs get boring? I get to be an atheist, an agnostic, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, and a pagan. (I cannot, however, be an Episcopalian unless I retake a couple of classes.) In politics, I get to be a liberal, a conservative, and a centrist. For one six-week period I advocated a return to feudalism. If beliefs can be divided into realms, I get to visit lots of them.

There are some advantages to not having stable beliefs. I don’t get into a lot of arguments because although I don’t agree with you today, I very well might in a week or two. That being the case, I don’t want to get unduly adamant or let the disagreement sour our relationship.

Some people consider me shallow or morally suspect because I don’t have a set of permanently fixed beliefs. They are right. I am both of those things. But I’ve always been this way, I can’t change, and I seem to get along in the modern world reasonably well, which is more than I can say for some of my relatives who have beliefs carved in stone.

I’ve figured out that no matter what I believe if I act friendly I will have friends and if I try to catch a falling knife I will cut myself. It isn’t sophisticated, but it gets me through most days no matter what I believe about the other stuff.