Well, that’s Father Christmas packed away for another year, and so begins the deadly dull grind of January. I’m still relatively full of the joys of the season, but it’ll all be eroded away by the middle of the month, mired by lack of cash before payday, the stress of starting up classes, and the dreary weather and dark short days. What I need, you might say, to see me through is having something to believe in, a way of peering ahead into the sunlit uplands of the future.
I must admit, I am absolutely bloody awful at organising things for myself for some distant date, a foible I share with anyone who loves the whooshing noise deadlines make as they approach. It's no problem in a work context - for example, I've already started planning exams for december 2013 - but when it comes to my personal life, for some reason, I tend to be a pessimist whenever I peer forwards – there’s always an ‘Ah, but…’ of a thought lurking in my head, suggesting that Terrible Things May Happen should I plan for anything. So I tend not to make any great plans, and it is only recently that I have really come to realise how profoundly this has affected my life. Because I see the future dimly, as it were, I don’t make plans. Because I don’t make plans, I tend not to have any solid ambitions. Because I don’t have solid ambitions, I end up drifting along, getting by but not getting on. In short, I lack faith in myself, and my behaviour only exacerbates this paucity of self-belief.
The problem is that this behaviour is so deeply ingrained that it is extremely hard for me to spot when I’m doing it. The only way I have found so far to fight against it is to make lists of activities for the day ahead, and even then I frequently forget to do this, plus there’s this other little voice going ‘Oh, what’s the bloody point?’ Yet on I plod, and I have, over the past year, got better at challenging this deep-down bit of me and persuading myself that I can do much more.
Anyway, that is part of the issue with belief, trust and faith – it is an ingrained thing, a deep-seated part of our psyches, a profound piece of the self, even if in my case it is a faith composed of negative attitudes. Because it is such a fundamental aspect of our being, any challenge towards it is seen as a primordial threat, the psychic equivalent of the lion’s roar on the veldt.
And of course, our beliefs are always the correct ones – if someone else says something that challenges our ideas or suggests a different perspective, it is automatic for us to assume a mentally defensive stance and assume that the other person is wrong, or a complete idiot, or dangerous, or a combination of all three.
Knowing this explains why, for example, people on different sides of a political divide can be quite so bitterly opposed. The Prime Minister may believe he is utterly correct in what he is doing for the country; The Leader of the opposition may consider him to be nothing better than an unhinged, unprincipled huckster without a clue in his soft little head. Likewise, in the United States, the divide between Democrats and Republican has probably never been wider or more bitterly divisive.
Staying in the States, one of the more striking examples of someone believing he is absolutely correct despite massive evidence to the contrary and the opinions of the masses is Wayne LaPierre, Chief of the National Rifle Association in his (to my mind, anyway) extraordinary statement regarding gun use in the light of the Newtown massacre. As he delivered his statement, he was booed down several times by anti-gun protesters. But what difference did their protest make?
Indeed, how can you engage with someone whose beliefs are opposed to(or just plain different from) one’s own? Clearly, just saying ‘you are wrong’ is going to be ineffective, simply because we all start from the assumption that we are fundamentally ‘correct’ in our opinions and outlook. This core belief in the way we see the world is of course going to be hard to shift because, by and large, we rarely have need of challenging ourselves and the veracity of our perceptions - and if someone challenges them, we become instinctively defensive. As I said above, an attack on our mental outlook is equated with being an almost physical attack.
This being the case, we have to, if we wish to engage with someone whose ideas we disagree with, rethink the ways and means of engaging their opinions. Saying ‘you are wrong’ outright is absolutely pointless, as it will only lead to the other person becoming more entrenched in their point of view. If we want someone to come round to the same way of thinking as us, it is necessary to persuade them that they have reached the same conclusions as us all by themselves from within the orbit of their own thoughts and beliefs. This entails listening to the other person in the first place – listening and hearing, and, crucially, being prepared to have our own principles, faith and convictions challenged without feeling defensive or offended.
As far as I’m concerned, we should try not to have an emotional attachment to our ‘core’ beliefs, as these essentially grow out of our culture, environment and experiences. However, that is easier said than done: the prime reason that people who are otherwise perfectly reasonable end up attacking what someone else says, or thinks, or does is because, for some reason, we have emotional attachments to that strange part of our minds that deals with faith and belief.
This is why challenging people head on is unlikely to be effective. It is only through persuasion, understanding and questioning without judgement that we can make a difference to the opinions and beliefs of others – and of ourselves. Critical thinking – the capacity to actually look at ourselves and say ‘hold on, why do I think this?’ is an important skill, of course : However, it is far too easy to descend into navel-gazing solipsism if we do it too often. Instead, we need each other to feed new ideas, different perspectives and other ways to understand what we see of the world, and quite frankly it would be awful if we had a single, homogenised perspective.