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Truths, Beliefs and Opinions ... Oh My

Purposeful Wanderings - Bradford L. Glass - November 2023

Newsletter - 11.23
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“I would rather have questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned.” – Carl Sagan

Since the dawn of humanity, we have been seekers of truth, searchers for answers to life’s (and our own) great mysteries. Evolution has endowed us with curiosity and wonder, a deep desire to find “something bigger” in our existence. It’s how we make sense of our lives, our world, the world. It’s a trait that distinguishes us from all other species. Our storied advancements – fire, agriculture, industry, technology, more – arose from insatiable curiosity.

I admire those in history who’ve exemplified this search. Galileo is a favorite. His passionate, patient observation – along with willingness to be surprised by out-of-the-ordinary results – proved beyond [intellectual] doubt that not everything revolved around the earth. He knew his findings would be a not-so-graceful end to the prevailing worldview, a biblical cosmology held as truth for centuries. (It’s still alive and well, over 400 years later.)

This same consciousness allowed builders of ancient stone circles to learn the workings of the sun, moon, stars, planets, seasons. It’s how Darwin postulated his findings about evolution. It’s how Einstein worked his ideas on relativity. Each stands out because of a commitment to a rigorous search for truth, no matter the elusiveness or discomfort of the results. But these brave pioneers would flip out today … to see opinion and belief masquerade as truth, and to see the willful ignorance and complete denial of critical thinking that once illuminated their paths.

When I explore contentious topics, I examine the thinking that creates the contention. Here, below the judgment, we open to new learning … in an environment of mutual curiosity and respect. But I find impossible to approach this one from a perspective of underlying rational thought … because there isn’t any underlying rational thought. Perhaps it’s because they learned only what to think, so have grown fearful of how to think. Perhaps they find life’s [natural] uncertainty fearful, too. Perhaps the hard work and rigor of critical thinking is too much for them. Perhaps they’ve found [perverse] comfort in their emotionally-driven yelling of opinions and beliefs. Perhaps they truly believe that the crowdsourcing of fear offers them more “power” than honest inquiry.

Here’s how I distinguish among opinion, belief and truth. I think this would stand the test of scrutiny.

Opinion: you’re entitled to hold any opinion you like on any topic you like. Although you may find comfort in your right to hold an opinion, yelling it loudly (or often) doesn’t make it true … for you or for others. The “beauty” of opinions is that they don’t need proof or evidence, as they are based in neither.

Belief: beliefs offer us comfort for what we can’t, or don’t, know … yet. They act as “truth placeholders” for inquiries that are ongoing, incomplete, inconclusive … so far. As with opinion, forcing a belief on others doesn’t make it true. Nor does continuing to hold a belief despite evidence it’s untrue (“placeholder” status expired).

Truth: truth is a product of observation, evidence and experiment. The results of this process can be verified independently by others, guaranteeing that one’s opinions or beliefs or interpretations have no impact on the findings. A truth stands on its own; it doesn’t need to yell. Moreover, truth isn’t static; it’s always open to new knowing, being replaced by new knowledge … no “once-and-for-all.”

Curiosity, and its partners skepticism and critical thinking, have been guiding lights in my life – constant, never-failing, companions for my [many] years on this planet. And by skepticism I don’t mean an intention to disagree, denigrate or deny, but an intention to inquire, learn and grow. This is how we’ve come to learn about our world.

And how might all this relate to living authentically? It’s simple … very simple. If you’re unwilling to conduct a rigorous search for truth in the world around you, you’re unlikely to find the truth that lives inside you.

Exercise: Discerning truth asks for inquisitiveness and courage – inquisitiveness to open to life’s mysteries and uncertainties (perhaps even embracing them as companions), and courage to stand strong in the midst of the inevitable small-mindedness of those offended because you asked. A two-part exercise.

Part 1: Toward inquiry. Ask yourself how you arrived at what you know as truth today. This isn’t about what you see as truth, but about the process by which you came to ‘know’ it. Your truth may have come from an ever-growing spiral of passionate curiosity … or, it may just be what’s left over after a steadfast refusal to look. With pondering, see if you can then find the connection between “how you know” and how much possibility your life holds. Clue: they’re intertwined, connected by your tolerance for uncertainty and change.

A shift in perspective can create a bigger world. So, ponder some big questions (no “easy answers” here, but the kind of reflection that allows answers to seep in … reflection so uncommon that we miss life’s underlying order.)

What if my mind weren’t already made up about things? What might I discover then? (openness)

What more could be possible if I stopped fighting with life, and didn’t need to impose my will? (acceptance)

What if I trusted my own inner voice to guide me instead of my age-old thought patterns? (awareness)

What if I didn’t have to know how it would all work out, but rather know that it would all work out? (trust)

What if there really were an underlying order to life? Am I willing to step into its experience? (courage)

What if I allowed wisdom to show up when conditions allow, not when I force it with my will? (patience)

What if I could really live with these questions, every day, as a new way of being? (practice)

Part 2: Toward courage. To me, you’re courageous if your trust in yourself exceeds (even by an ounce) your need for approval from others. You don’t “learn” courage. You don’t “try” to be courageous. As Dorothy found in The Wizard of Oz, courage has always lived inside you; you discover it, by getting to know yourself very well. You might think of the ‘work’ here as inquisitiveness (above) directed inward. With practice of quiet reflection, the essence of your truth starts to glow. (It’s always there; now you notice.) With awareness of your thinking, the glow of your truth becomes a flame, eventually igniting the passion of your unique creative genius. The darkness of others’ opinions don’t have much power when they’re illuminated by your self-trust.

Life Lessons from Nature: Nature has it easy here. She doesn’t make stuff up, so doesn’t live at the intersection of opinion, belief and truth. Nature’s way is a continual process that renews, refreshes, creates and invents. Simple awareness of how this process is going provides the feedback for what to do next, a process, deeply in touch with its environment.

Book of the month: Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, by Adam Grant. Insights and perspectives when they’re desperately needed (and disturbingly missing). Consciously or not, we have a tendency to believe what makes us feel better, listen to those we agree with, and preach, prosecute or politicize things … when we’d be far better off if we stopped, stepped back, and saw all we encounter with a “fresh mind.” Grant shows us how to choose courage (through thinking) over comfort (through unconscious desire for safety). And if you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.


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