“The most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.” Euripides
In this age of fanaticism, the above quote from Euripides is extremely timely. With the rise of terrorism and dogmatic, intolerant religious beliefs one wishes for a grain of doubt and empathy in this world. Tolerance. Yes, tolerance. Yet, despite boundless information, cogent expressions of the best of ideas and intelligent writings expressing different viewpoints, available everywhere, the race towards polarized and absolute positions on politics, social systems and spirituality goes unabated. Rather than discussing other theories or beliefs too many people find their only solace is in like-minded people, groups and sources of information. People are often lazy intellectually, and just look for the answers they want. Rather than finding a friendly “global village” that McLuhan envisioned there’s a patchwork of starkly varying and clashing emotions and viewpoints. McLuhan wrote about (predicted) “the tribal consequences of such unity” when considering the effects of electronic media’s impact. Instead of the coalescing of what it means to be human, and a growing sense of sisterhood and brotherhood, we’re seeing an accelerating fragmentation. Why?
Instead of enlightened doubt and healthy scepticism, the modern internet-fueled world is creating a bunch of fanatic believers… people that are so positive their wold view is the “right” one. Among these folks are some religious types whom we must watch carefully: the ones who they think those opposed to their beliefs are worthless sinners, or idiots, worthy of death or, at the very least, banishment. Too bad the words of Socrates aren’t studied widely. Considered the wisest among the ancient Greeks he often bragged that his strength was that he knew that he did not know. The teachers of Zen philosophy were quite aware of this basis for wisdom. An old saying from these ancient teachers may hold the key to our societal dilemma:
“To know there is nothing to know and to grieve
that it is so difficult to communicate this
‘nothing to know’ to others – this is the life of Zen,
This is the deepest thing in the world”.
I think we need to focus on the phrase “difficult to communicate” as a fundamental truth. When Socrates actually said “the only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing” he must have shocked his fellow citizens. They came to him to learn and he says he knows nothing! Yet in this humility comes true knowledge… one becomes open to all things and all people. But, and this is important, this realization requires great effort. And, it is so difficult to communicate. And this partly explains what is currently happening throughout the world (and maybe throughout history) - people like to believe things… they want to feel they know something… it is human nature. (And) therein lays the crux of the problem. A problem completely exacerbated by the plethora of information found in the “world wide web” that feeds people’s insatiable hunger for knowledge.
You can find theories on almost anything in today’s media with the help of various electronic communication devices. It seems everyone has become a writer, a reporter, an authority, a news channel unto themselves… and there are a lot of gullible people on the planet. As P.T. Barnum (of Barnum & Baily Circus fame) pointed out, “there’s a sucker born every minute” … more like every second in a world of seven billion people. And these people easily find a theories or beliefs that suit their disposition and background. From conspiracy theories about 9/11 to the Flat Earth Society, you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. And with sites like Facebook with compliant “friends” tending to confirm those beliefs – you become part of a like-minded, and worse, right-minded, group.
I could write on forever on this theme and continue to lament the profusion of ignorant people in our midst… but it’s not only futile, it’s also depressing! Nevertheless, for some unknown reason, I’m hopeful that a few influential doubters will rise up in each generation and stand as a beacon for the dogmatic masses to give their “heads a shake” and consider contrary views…accepting them as at least possible.
The best hope for some resolution to antagonistic arguments and situations is convincing people that disagreeing doesn’t mean ending a discussion. It could be the beginning. And we must somehow further prove that communities with divergent beliefs can endure and, at all times, be peaceful, fertile places to live. Maybe Canada’s experiment in Multiculturalism will be that beacon of hope? Bound together by a strong but basic Charter of Rights I think my country is doing quite well. Left and right aren’t too far apart. People are more tolerant of other religions (which are, thankfully, deceasing in followers annually). My hope is we achieve the vision of Doris Lessing expressed in her book “Prisons We Chose to Live Inside”. She writes about getting beyond that which she calls “The Age of Belief” –
“Soon we will all be free and, as all philosophers and sages
Have recommended, we will all live our lives with minds free of
Violent and passionate commitment, but in a condition of
Intelligent doubt about ourselves and our lives, a state of
Quiet, tentative, dispassionate curiosity.”
A new Golden Age. But how will we get there?
Unfortunately, I think it will take more than good examples and great role models to get a world beyond fanaticism. Zen masters claim there is “nothing to know” but their ultimate goal is really infinite wisdom… sound contradictory? Not if you go deeper into a quest for this knowledge and wisdom. Herman Hesse, in his book “Siddhartha”, offers a number of clues to success in finding truth. First he echoes the earlier part of this essay in explaining why people only find answers they want. “When someone is seeking”, said Siddhartha, “it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking… because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeing, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free to be receptive, to have no goal”. How then can people find freedom from prejudices and old beliefs? Not through technology because it mainly communicates knowledge, not wisdom. Hesse says of wisdom, “one can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it… everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity…”. Quite a dilemma if he’s correct. He’s saying wisdom is not only difficult to teach, it’s impossible!? Words on these pages, great texts, letters, newspaper and journal articles are all useless in imparting wisdom?! I think so… wisdom is found by not just seeking. It comes to those who are also receptive. Those who see, hear and listen… selflessly...not tied up in dogma…free. As Hesse writes, “When all the Self is conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self – the great secret!” And it is in the moment when our egos disappear that we find truth and wisdom. It is found looking inward (as Thoreau found in solitude) and allowing the inner self, the quiet observer that is always present, an unfiltered access to the world. At that point, with no preconceived ideas or beliefs, we find true wisdom and acceptance of all others. Some call this pure ‘love’. I don’t know… but the few transcendent moments I’ve experienced sure feels like an all-encompassing understanding, forgiving peace.
The only way to transfer wisdom, I believe, starts with careful and deep introspection, shedding of opinions, followed by open discussions with other human beings, listening intently and staying close in their company…again and again… and having lots of quiet time together. If there is any wisdom in one or the other it will, by spiritual osmosis, pass from one to the other in moments we least suspect. And, never forget hugs.