This past month I've written on several holiday themes including admiring Scrooge's iconic grumpiness and the rhetorical acrobatics of explaining Santa to a child. Just as an indoor cat will sneak up on a Christmas tree ornament, the end of the year now encroaches on our festive dispositions. Thinking about the year ahead creeps into the back of our heads upon stealthy feline paws that threatens to pounce on the serenity we allow ourselves once everything is unwrapped and we finally let go of the folderol that makes this particular holiday so fraught with the opportunities for disappointment. Once the true tranquility settles in on Christmas morning, it's easy to get nervous in that peaceful silence that follows if we start to wonder, “Okay, now what?”
As a dose of prevention in keeping myself from getting wound back up just as the holidays are getting wound down, I thought I might take stock of the spiritual beliefs that help keep me centered when it feels as though the rest of the world is tilting and spinning, and the pull of inertia on my moral compass makes me question the location of all that is right and good. Below is a list of 10 of my core beliefs, and a brief explanation of why I believe them. If instead of internalizing my beliefs, you might take some time before the New Year to list out a few of your own core beliefs, you may find that having a list similar to this to be the salubrious tonic that will get you through the cold winter months ahead.
Ten Core Beliefs
1. Everyday life screws with our ability to apply our abstract principles of right and wrong. While discussing hypothetical situations, it is a lot easier to recognize how we want to react to moral dilemmas. But, everyday life isn't hypothetical. Real life is complicated. Real life has an amazing ability to come up with a bazillion intervening factors that have a sincere impact upon our ability to judge what's right and what's wrong. Every time we encounter a difficult moral decision, circumstance matters. There just is no easy way to fit the geography of real life onto the flat template of “never do this” or “we should always do that.” In theory, the shortest distance between two places is a straight line, but in real life, the shortest distance is sometimes to go around the mountain rather than to try to climb up it.
2. Some difficult ideas cannot be reduced to simple platitudes. Not everything in life can be reduced to a simple formula or a basic rule of thumb. It takes real intelligence, for example, to recognize a distinction between “what is real” and “what we know about it.” What is real is a question of existence; what we know about it is a question of interpretation. When people conflate their interpretations with their reality, problems arise in that they think what they know is real instead of mere belief. Most of humanity's self-inflicted tragedies have come from people who have hurt others while suffering from a madness that has convinced them their dangerous delusions carry the authority of an inescapable actuality.
3. If an idea can be misinterpreted, there will be people who will misinterpret it. This core belief is almost a correlate to Murphy's Law which says “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.” The human brain is a pattern making machine; we see faces in electrical outlets merely because the three slots line up with two eyes and a mouth. Because our brains are able to make inferences and draw conclusions, then it is inevitable that from time to time, we will make the wrong inference or draw the wrong conclusion. As far as I can tell, there are some people who seem to have a knack for drawing the wrong conclusion from whatever evidence presents itself. There are few things in life more annoying that someone who will argue until they are blue in the face that their interpretation is “the correct one” when any variety of alternative interpretations can be considered just as probable.
4. In general, it is better to be kind than correct. How often in life have we found ourselves arguing with someone over something of little importance but somehow the argument itself takes on its own importance? While we may gain a brief jolt of self-satisfaction when we “win” those arguments, let's consider what we lose when we've forced another person into conceding. What we lose is our higher nature. Every time we bully someone into admitting they are wrong, we have taken another step in the direction of caring more about an ideal than someone else's feelings. Whenever we damage a relationship with someone out of some allegiance to an abstract principle, we've done nothing but demonstrated that an ideal is somehow more important than an actual human being. In the long run, what people will remember about you is how your “ideals” were reflected in how you've treated them, not in your stubborn dogmatism regarding some abstract principle.
5. Something is wrong whenever we value “stuff” over people. Everyone likes their stuff, and most of us would like more stuff. But, really, how much stuff do we need to survive? Everyone should have a warm, safe place to sleep; a decently-filled belly, and a place to take a shower. After that, stuff just gets piled on stuff, but many people are actually willing to hurt or kill others to keep them from taking the stuff they don't actually need to survive. The Bible says, “the love of money is the root of all evil” and that's because money is just a way of keeping track of how much stuff we can get without recognizing how much stuff we don't really need.
6. Anger and Fear can prevent us from thinking straight. Whether you believe in evolution or not, there's a reptilian part of your brains that is completely devoted to “getting ready to run or getting ready to rumble.” Whenever our lower emotions (anger and fear are just a couple of them; hatred and jealously are also on the list) take over the management of our consciousness, we become prisoners of our darker passions. There's something chemical in our brains that prevents us from reasoning well while we are in the midst of panicking. While there is nothing wrong with being passionate about our beliefs, we need to recognize whenever our temper or frustration has moved us from rational beings to snarling animals. It's best to stop in the midst of a heated argument to see if you can regain control of the thinking part of your brain rather than it is to keep charging ahead like a bull who can only focus on the red flag.
7. Whether life is getting better or getting worse is a matter of perspective. You want evidence that life is getting worse, it's there in abundance. Gravity and entropy are never going to go away. It takes no effort to focus on either what's wrong or what's missing if you want life to be different from that way it is. And, at the same time, if you want verification that things are getting better, all you have to do is look for justification because it is all around you. Good things are happening; hard work and dedication is paying off. Now, which perspective is going to make you a better person? Since neither perspective is necessarily incompatible with the other, how much of one are you willing to allow to either support or destroy the other outlook? It's not really about either being pessimistic or optimistic; it's about be aware that either perspective is a choice, and all choices have both their liabilities and their benefits.
8. The best religion is the one you follow, not the one you preach to others. If there is an Ultimate Truth out there, and you've found it, then do me a solid favor and show me the way rather than try to drag me to it. If there is a path to salvation, it must point in the direction of personal responsibility. How can anyone become responsible if they don't have the agency of finding the truth out for themselves?
9. You don't need to understand what someone was thinking in order to forgive them. Forgiveness means letting go of something you hold against someone else. You don't have to forget what has happened, you only need to allow it to be. If you think you need to wait to understand someone else's motivations for what they have done before you can let go of it, then you may end up holding on to those feelings forever. How often do we understanding why anyone else does anything? How many times in our own lives have we done something that we can't even explain to ourselves why we did it?
The secret to forgiveness is the acknowledgement that forgiveness lives within our own control and other people do not. We cannot change what other people have done in the past or will do in the future; we can only change how we decide to feel about it.
10. Forgives of others is a gift we give ourselves. The terrible truth about resentment is that it is an acid that burns from within; typically when we hold on to grudges and bitterness, those harsh feelings harm only ourselves. Sometimes people stay angry for years at what someone else has said or done, and they end up prolonging and exacerbating their own emotional damage because of it. Letting go of resentment is a gift we give ourselves because we victimize ourselves when hold on to anger, sadness, and frustration that may affect the other person not at all. When we learn to weed the garden of our hearts of old animosities, we make room to grow the fruits of our own contentment. If you are unconvinced that forgiveness can improve your life, then I offer this simple experiment: try it for a day. Plan on forgiving someone for 24 hours and see how it feels. You can always pack the anger back into your heart if really need it, but I suspect that once without it, you'll want to remain free of its burden.
As always, I invite readers to respond in the comment section of this blog (below). I'm probably going to take next week off so I'll see you next year. Until then, keep thinking rhetorically.