Cultural Heroes in Difficult TimesThank you to those who told me that they missed my columns during the last few months. [Summer, 2012, ed.] We were getting into the last convulsions of some very bitter political campaigns. I felt strongly tempted to respond to the upwelling of political partisanship by fighting a battle of ideas in print. Lord, some of those letters to the editor got me steamed. Instead, I put a bumper sticker on my car that said: “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”
I almost got sucked into arguing with the undoubting faithful from the other side. That has variously been compared to “confronting a shadow in a knife fight,” “grabbing the ears of an angry dog” and “throwing pearls before swine.” Nothing good can come of it.
On the other hand, I believe we should persistently doubt our own assumptions, opinions and preconceived notions. It’s like I used to tell my boys, “It’s okay to talk to yourself and it’s even okay to argue with yourself, but when you start to lose those arguments, it’s time to start asking new questions.”
During my years as a father, I began to doubt, more and more, some of the things I had believed for so long, and had spent so much effort to convince my boys were true. Take religion for instance. I taught them that there is only one true God – all-knowing and all-powerful. Therefore, there is only one true religion and one true truth – and, of course, that true truth was the one I believed. Faith is such a wonderfully certain thing.
However, the more I studied to defend my faith, the more I discovered other people with similar faith in their own true truths. In fact, I discovered that my forbearers had believed in a wide variety of similar, but vitally different, true truths, and that my peers in the same faith actually held a considerable variety of true truths.
The more I explored, the more I realized that, in all of recorded history, as regionally-isolated peoples discovered each other, they routinely exchanged language, customs, technology, tastes in food, clothing styles, and spiritual beliefs. As generations come and go, our faiths, like our habits, are fickle.
I eventually recognized that many things could not be known with certainty but must only be taken on faith. I began to prefer ideas where I had been persuaded by increasing evidence. Further, I became more careful to distinguish between things I took on (provisional) faith and on (accumulating) evidence.
We should all be alert to 1) doubt our most narrow prejudices, 2) be open to wider experiences and ideas, and 3) be ready to exchange outdated notions with new ones that do a better job of explaining our observations. When black-and-white fails, we should consider thinking in shades-of-gray. And, when that fails, we should consider how color serves us to explore ever-more-complex explanations.
There can be great comfort in belonging to a community of like-minded folks who share a common and non-threatening culture. However, when events change our environment, it will be courageous individuals who first scout-out how things are changing and explore how the rest of us can adapt so as to continue to thrive. These are not necessarily bad people or better people; they are just different. In fact, by figuring out how to bend, they show their communities, in difficult times, how to not break.