Guest Article written by Robert Kramer
Smile Robbie, or it might never happen, my grandmother used to say to me. Which usually only pissed me off and made me not want to smile, ever, at anyone. Why should I have to smile if I didn’t want to? It wasn’t like I was sitting alone in the back yard, crying, screaming, jamming sticks into my eyes. I wasn’t doing anything to hurt myself or anyone, so why was it so important that I walk around everywhere I went, lips parsed, baring teeth? It has been my experience in life that people who walk around smiling all the time are either supremely well-adjusted (though not usually), or hiding some form of deep suicidal depression. The point, though, is that I was just being who I was. As a kid I used to think a lot, daydream a lot, and ask a lot of questions. And if I wasn’t smiling it usually meant I wasn’t thinking about anything particularly funny. Imagine that. But if something was funny or amusing, then guess what – I would smile. At least a little.
Now I am thirty-four, and am still constantly amazed how so many people I talk to have this underlying belief or attitude that their way in the world is the way in the world. It may sound like a semantic argument, but there can be significant real-world consequences that come from this rigid type of thinking. Granted, there are many people out there who have the education, experience and ability to understand the difference between an opinion and a fact. But it is disheartening to see how many people speak in absolute truths about different subjects without acknowledging that what they are really talking about are their beliefs. The old saying goes, you are entitled to your own opinions [beliefs], but not your own facts. Know the difference.
For the purpose of this discussion, a fact is something that exists that can be touched, viewed, heard, measured and verified by others. We can save the Master’s Thesis for later, but many people accept their opinions as facts, and an opinion is not a fact. Someone’s opinion might be their truth, but it is not a fact. I will give you an example. I have a friend who said to me, “We are the only life in the universe – someone has to be at the top of the food chain.” I know I should probably keep better company, and I did attempt to offer some perspective to his statement. I talked about the trillions of other stars that exist and the statistical possibility that some of the planets that orbit those stars might be suitable for some form of life. But those possibilities were immediately rejected. In his mind there were no other perspectives. His belief was his truth, unsupported by any facts (or reason). My response (supporting the possibility for extra-terrestrial life) was also a belief, but at least I acknowledged it as such, presented facts to support my view, and was receptive to further information. To me, there was a definite difference in the quality of thinking in that exchange. As the other adage goes: his mind was made up, don’t confuse him with facts.
You may be asking, who cares about your random geek-level discussion about extra-terrestrial life, or Star Trek, or any other topic? Well, it is not about extra-terrestrial life or Star Trek per se, it is about the process by which people come to conclusions, and the decisions they make based on those conclusions. In the life exists, no it doesn’t discussion, there were no practical, real-world consequences to our beliefs. There were no decisions that had to be made, so our reasoning skills and conclusions were not important. But if you apply my friend’s same rigid, belief-oriented way of thinking to say, government or religious problems, or investment decisions, or any other person or group who has the power to effect real-world change, then all of a sudden those thinking and decision-making processes become very important. Why you believe something becomes extremely important. What if The Church (using the term generally) believed again that some women are witches and returned to a policy of burning them alive? That’s a pretty real consequence to an unsubstantiated, poorly-reasoned belief. No, of course we don’t burn ‘witches’ (anymore!), but rigid, unsubstantiated, belief-oriented thinking is still everywhere: Jesus is the son of God, gays shouldn’t marry, aliens do or do not exist, democracy is the best form of government, stock markets are or are not efficient, etc. Examples abound. And there are many people who are either unaware of, or do not care about, how much of their world-view is based on this type of thinking — until they find themselves on the detrimental side of it. On an individual basis, someone’s beliefs may not impact me directly. But cumulatively, our thought processes and beliefs are what we call culture, and culture has a massive impact on the world and how we fit into it.
Speaking of culture, if I may digress for a moment, I actually rather like Star Trek, and the character Spock in particular. For those that do not know, Spock is a Vulcan, a race of ‘people’ who are extremely logical and keep their emotions under tight control. I like him not because he lacks emotion, but because I identify with his approach. There is a logical receptiveness to everything he does. I know logic is not an end-all be-all way for every situation, because a person’s logic can be and often is a product of their individual education and experience. I also know emotion and belief are both necessary, healthy, vital parts of the human condition. Beliefs help create value and structure, and give meaning to people’s lives (believing in a higher power, for example, can be a catalyst for positive change in someone’s life, or it can bring strength in times of need). I just think the process of how you come to your beliefs can be equally as important as what your beliefs are. Process matters.
The point I am making is that I didn’t smile at my grandmother simply because she was my grandmother and she told me to. From my grandmother’s perspective, kids who didn’t smile were considered not well-adjusted. Those were her experiences and beliefs, learned or taught to her over her eighty-plus years of life. I was only five or six, but even at that age I knew I didn’t want someone telling me what to do, at least not without offering me (what I considered) good reasons for why they were telling me what they were telling me. I never accepted people’s rules “just because.” Just because why? Because you are my mother/father/grandmother? Because that’s the way it is? Because that is what you were told? Who told you? What if you are wrong? What if they are wrong? I don’t understand. I’m not doing it. At which point I was usually threatened with having my video games taken away. I believe it is necessary for people to evaluate where their beliefs come from and why are they accepted. This is a learning process which is important. Your beliefs will impact everything you do.
So the question that follows is: do you know where your beliefs come from (assuming you know what they are) and how they impact the decisions that you make? What decisions are you trying to make? Are you trying to get a job, start a business or go back to school? Maybe marry that girl or guy you’ve had your eye on. But why are you wanting to start that business or marry that girl or guy? These are all questions with real-life consequences. Please tell me that your attitude, opinions, processes and beliefs are yours — that when you speak (like my friend did) and make choices, your words and actions are not simply the noxious, regurgitated by-products of someone else’s bad ideas. No, not everyone is as feeble as that last sentence makes it sound. But enough are. And I’m just saying that people are people. Some are good and some are bad and some are well-intentioned and some are misinformed. Pay attention and make your own decisions, that’s all.
It is better to grasp the Universe as it really is, than to persist in delusion, however gratifying or reassuring.
Carl Sagan said that, and I believe it. It is my truth. It’s just not a fact. Imagine that.