I’ve often wondered why we humans seem to have the most uncompromising convictions about things for which the evidence is the least resilient. There’s nothing, of course, about which we might not be wrong. We could even discover one day that the world is flat after all and that we have been interpreting what we think we observe in the wrong way. I don’t, actually, expect to live to see that day. There is way too much evidence, too many experiences by too many scientists and non-scientists to seriously consider that a flat world is just as likely as a round one.
But the things about which we seem to be most often intolerant are those convictions that are not broadly shared and for which the evidence is not universally convincing. People who disagree with us in relation to religious and political convictions seem to be the two areas where there is the most fire without light. I doubt there is a person reading this post (or writing, it for that matter) who cannot identify people — sometimes even family members — with whom we cannot have open discussion and disagreement on a question of religion or politics without at least half the people in the conversation feeling furiously frustrated and angry.
Last night I turned this seemingly distressing fact on its head. I was watching a BBC documentary on the history of dance. In England, a mere 400 years ago, dancing was seen by some Christians as the work of the devil. Even dancing that did not involve touching one’s partner was seen as the first step on the road to hell. Books were written venting on this terrible sin, assuring anyone who even contemplated dancing and did not repent was damned for eternity.
Today, there are very few people in the Western world who hold views like this. But there are people who hold views which I personally think are just as outrageous. Today we have deep divisions about sex, about God, about capitalism, about the limits of freedom. In some cultures, women cannot show their face in public, cannot drive cars, are not permitted to learn to read and write. Many of these views, in my own and other cultures, seem to my mind, to be preposterous.
But I find myself wondering what beliefs I have that may seem just as preposterous to future generations? I worry about climate change, about our species’ continued attempts to solve our conflicts through use of physical force, about the world running out of resources to sustain our galloping population growth, which has just surpassed 7 billion. More egocentrically, I also worry about some of the stupid, selfish, ignorant, immature things I have said and done sometimes many decades ago, and cringe in humiliation.
But all of these worries, both great and embarrassingly egocentric, are based on my convictions that are by no means indisputable. I doubt anybody shares anything like the depths of my personal concern for my own virtue. Not a single person, I am sure, cringes with the regret and mortification I sometimes feel at the fool I think I have on occasion made of myself. Certainly I am wrong to think I am that important.
Or rather, I would say, I am wrong to think I am important in the way I sometimes think I am.
I’m a human being. That is fantastic! How lucky I am! For all the limitations of being human, each one of us is a unique, astonishing, beautiful creature. We all make mistakes. We’re all incomplete. We all make fools of ourselves in one way or other on occasion. That doesn’t change the reality. We are each simply incredible. We are each simply wonderful.
Now if I can only convince myself that climate change, or our tendency to kill those who threaten us, are not going to lead to our self-extinction as a species, I have managed to make a virtue out of convincing myself that I might occasionally be wrong. Even about those very important things about which I am absolutely positive.