If You Believe This – You’ll Believe Anything

19287090_mI suffer from a curse. I believe in things. Do you have it too?

People are attached to beliefs. We argue about them. We select friendships based on them. Pick up a newspaper any day of the week. You’ll read about people killing or dying for their beliefs. Sometimes both.

That’s pretty mind blowing when attachment to belief outranks life itself.

Beliefs are too flimsily based to be so powerful. It’s rare to find a belief that is undeniable, uncontested truth. A belief is not truth. It is an interpretation. It is a noticing, filtered through our own unique mix of life experiences, parental influence, hopes and fears.

The more we interpret, the further we are from the truth. Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote: “the ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.”

A little girl in the park yesterday was riding her small bicycle. A dog ran out in front of her. She squeezed the brakes and came to a sudden stop. Her legs flailed but she stayed on the bike.

And then she cried. Really sobbed.

Her father responded by saying “but you didn’t hit the dog.” The little girl continued to sob. The father said again, “but you didn’t hit the dog.” The child sobbed just as hard. So the father said the same thing again. This looped around for a few minutes.

I imagine the father’s interpretation was that she was crying because she almost hit a dog.

Maybe his diagnosis was right. But it’s unlikely. There are so many possible reasons why she was crying. That means any imagined explanation is probably wrong.

What if he had observed without evaluating? He might have said “you seem really upset.” That would have been a step closer to the truth.

This is the problem with beliefs. They are a filter through which we pass our observations. In that filter, we decide what someone else’s intent is, or what the future consequences will be.

We don’t know either of those things, so we take steps away from the truth. Those filters often link to a new chain in the belief system. We make fresh assumptions based on the earlier ones. Before long, people are furious. Why? Because of things they’d each imagined about the other.

Haven’t you done this yourself in arguments with loved ones? They did this so that means that?

Of course, it’s easier said than done to not have these thoughts. But we can at least call them for what they are. Imaginings and interpretations, not truth.

Will Storr’s book The Heretics details how we end up with our political opinions. A lot of it comes down to our parents. If your parents are on the Left, the chances are that you will be too. If your parents are on the Right, you probably are.

We have two key responses – to be drawn towards something or to pull away from it. Our parents have a big influence in the programming of what those things are.

If Mum and Dad express distaste at a spider, your young self will too. After all, what do you know about the world when you’re tiny? You take your lead from others. Everyone is running away from the eight legged thing you’ve just seen for the first time. It makes sense to do the same.

If Mum and Dad express distaste at a peace campaigner, that enters your programming too.

Studies also show that people are born with differing degrees of risk averseness. The ones who are less risk averse are more likely to be on the Left. Those who are more cautious are more likely to be on the Right.

Political belief is largely a combination of parental influence and in-born attitudes to risk. When we hate someone for their political beliefs, we’re hating either a 7 year old or a foetus.

We have less to do with our beliefs than we think. Little wonder that attempts to persuade tend to entrench rather than weaken a belief. Belief is stronger than knowledge.

I’m an atheist, so I read with some envy that religious people are happier than non religious people. In some ways this makes sense. Being part of something bigger than yourself boosts happiness. God counts as that I’d say.

What better way to overcome the fear of one’s own mortality than to believe in everlasting life?

I’ve had a fear of death all my life. I can at least console myself that it’s not irrational. After all, it’s death. Nobody can say that it can’t harm me like they do when I run away from spiders.

When I was 14 I tried Christianity. It only lasted a week or so. There were too many questions I couldn’t square with myself. So I gave it up again. But I did sleep well for those few days. I was no longer afraid of dying. It was wonderful.

Beliefs can make life more difficult too. Think of the paranoid person. He sees everything as evidence that someone is out to get him. That must be terrifying.

Truth is so hard to identify. Belief is just our own interpretations. They are produced via a lens we didn’t even build ourselves. We base belief on so many interpretations that it is inevitably wonky. Yet we cling to it with unshakeable certainty.

What we believe impacts our happiness. Maybe it makes more sense to believe the things that serve you. It’s an easier task than figuring out what is “true”, and believing in that.

If you believe that the audience will hate you when you go on stage, that doesn’t serve you. So believe something else.

It’s all yin yang at the end of the day. The world is awful and unjust. The world is kind and generous. Most of what we think we know, we don’t. As John Lennon put it: Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright.

Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice

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