Pamela and I went to a Christmas party a few years ago, expecting it to be about like every other one we’d been to…and we were wrong. Sat down around a coffee table with our spiked eggnogs, chatted with some people I didn’t know, but then we got ambushed.
A priest sat down next to me and started chatting. But, about a minute later, his hand crept onto my kneecap and started drifting higher. I gave this gentleman what Pamela calls my “Vulcan Death Look”. He got the message and removed his hand. I started looking around for some place, any place else we could sit, but then he started in on the small group of us around the coffee table.
He began by saying, “ I decided to believe in God during my first semester at the seminary.” Now, I usually have my party manners turned up high enough to just let that slide by, but having just been groped, I found myself saying, “Actually, that’s not exactly how it works. You don’t decide what you believe.”
He smiled. I had taken the bait. But, I went on. I said, “If I took out my checkbook and said, for $1,000 I want you to decide to believe that I’m a Martian and my flying saucer is parked in the back, you could say the words, ‘I believe you,’ but they wouldn’t be true. Somewhere, down in your guts, you know it isn’t true and so…you don’t really believe it.”
This conversation went on another twenty minutes, before the priest left in a huff. Apparently, he wasn’t used to anyone questioning anything he said. We covered Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and I explained that my belief in Santa Claus was short-lived, when my older brother, somewhat cynically, explained that Mom coming out of the toy store, loaded with bags, was actually buying the presents. In this case, as with most of us, some beliefs are innocent and innocuous…and we outgrow them.
Cynicism: In seventh-grade English, we had to read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. For reasons unknown, one sonnet stuck in my brain and has remained there: When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies. It was my first real dose of cynicism, though put in a flowery way. And over the years, though it’s currently in vogue, I have come to truly despise cynicism.
Here’s another quote, this time from Maya Angelou: “There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing…to believing nothing.” I find young cynics to be particularly odious, though at the same time, I believe that down deep, they are victims. Imagine a person, still in their teens or twenties, sneer on their face saying, “It’s all bullshit. Everything. Everyone is crooked. Everyone is a liar. Believe no one. Believe nothing. The world sucks…..period.”
The truth is, the only way we survive on this planet is believing that, at the very least, things can be improved. Things can get better. We can cure many diseases now that were death sentences just a decade ago. We can put valves in hearts, remove cancer from brain tissue, install a new hip to replace one that’s worn out. Amazing stuff…but these things were not created by cynics.
Skepticism vs. Cynicism: If you’ve never had to grapple with distinctions between words, you might think, well, aren’t they just kind of the same thing? Though it may seem so at first, actually there’s a huge distinction, though in the last decade or so, what you see and hear on television and on your computer have tried to blur the difference….sometimes with dark motives.
Most, if not all true scientists are skeptics. But at the same time, most are not cynical about their field. Example: A dairy farmer might notice that when he plays soothing music to his cows at milking time…he gets more milk. He goes to a scientist with his new revelation and the scientist will say, “You just might be onto something…but I’m skeptical. Let’s test it out.” Then he’ll perform double-blind tests for a period of time, and at the end, he can say, “I’ve tested this out 150 times and…it looks like you’re right!”
A cynic would merely conclude, “Sounds like a lot of bullshit. I don’t believe it, no matter how much you test it. Somebody is getting paid off or somebody’s trying to make a buck somewhere.” In point of fact, when we observe nature, we come to all kinds of conclusions based on repeatedly observing. It’s called the Scientific Method and it works. It’s why you feel confident that when you insulate your house…you’ll stay warmer in winter, or when you toss that Frisbee or football, you’re pretty sure it’s going to return to the ground. We observe and come to conclusions based on facts.
How do all these silly abstract terms fit together? Who cares? Why bother? What’s the point??? These terms, knowing vs. believing, skepticism vs. cynicism, what is a fact? What is truth? are at the absolute core of who you are…and more than that, they are at the core of whether a state or a country or a culture is healthy and functioning…or not.
Way down in your gut, your heart of hearts, you have a core of things that you know to be true. We have gravity on planet Earth. If you stick your finger in a working electrical socket, you’ll get a shock. If a Cat-Five hurricane passes through your town, there’s going to be damage. Things like that, and it’s a long list.
Right along side that, there are people whispering in your ear, via the television, radio, internet, etc. who you may like or dislike. You may want to agree with them, or quite the opposite. But down in your core set of beliefs, there’s a tiny intellectual gyroscope that says, “This is true. This is actually a fact. ” Or… “This isn’t really true. I just like hearing it.”
Every single important decision you have ever made has to be made with that core system in the back of your mind, whether it’s a decision between one religion or another, whether one friend is trustworthy or not, whether 1700+ scientists from all over the world are correct about our climate or whether all 1700+ are crooked and in cahoots. You decide.
“I have ALL the answers,” someone I know well, once said to me when we were out a dinner. She wasn’t joking, she really believes it. As we were leaving, I replied, “God save me from someone who has ALL the answers.” Our friendship withered a bit after that. It’s your right as well as your duty to question things…everything and anything no matter who says it.
Your Dreams: Most of you know that I write for a living. What you probably don’t know is that once in a while, I will learn some nugget of wisdom, not from a friend or from the television, but from a character who’s speaking in one of my books. The character of Sam Harper in Playing on the Black Keys began one of my chapters sharing a truth with his son. He said, “You have a right to question anyone, anything, but there’s one thing you should never do. Never piss on anyone’s dreams.” That was decades ago, but I’ve tried to keep my promise to Sam.
Eloquent as always, Henry
Some essays are harder than others. This one was a bugger…not even sure why.
I have to admit I never thought there was much of a difference between cynical and skeptical. There’s a world of difference. One’s negative, one’s valuable and necessary. Thanks for making the distinction!
Good to hear! Long time! It’s from all those years in philo class, questioning Everything.
You are so right about trying to believe in a concept that is anathema to your basic senses. So many kids are brain washed to believe in religious mumbo
jumbo before they have learned to think
for themselves. Believe in yourself and the truth, especially in science.
This is one of those third-rail topics guaranteed to piss-off great hoards of people. But it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I’ve found that most folks are pretty reasonable if you adopt a position that is more theoretical. Here’s an example: Most people will agree that if you take a child away from its parents and raise them in some strange different culture…and subject them to a different religion starting from age three or younger, there’s a good chance that the child will end up believing in that religion. That’s pretty basic. At age 3, no one has the ability to judge or weigh out nuances of right and wrong. They are essentially sponges for knowledge at that point. The secret is to provide children with information that is wise and kind. Not all religions were created the same. The huge and universal problem is that virtually every religion believes that theirs is the one and only true religion and all the rest of the world…is going straight to hell. Be careful.
I like questioning things, concepts, beliefs, etc. It’s a natural curiousity of mine and I know of yours. Its a learning process. While walking along in your 12 acre paradise, how would you react if you came across a bush that was burning but not being consumed? Would you think about what you are witnessing or just get a long stick and some marshmallows? Your answer counts 10% towards your finally grade.
A bunch of years ago we were experiencing a truly long and extreme drought. We were up in the studio and in one of my more bizarre and pompous moments, with Pam, and Cam and an employee watching, I proclaimed to the ceiling in a booming voice, “Okay God, you want to screw around with us? Time to come back from your smoke break and get back to work. We need RAIN!!! Nothing happened… nothing happened, nothing……and then my one window at the welding table got blasted with a huge sheet of water. ….Cameron had slipped outside and nailed the window with the garden hose. I jumped about two feet in the air, but then I looked out and started laughing like hell. I’m a skeptic, but a skeptic with an active imagination. With the burning bush, I’d be looking for where some propane line had sprung a leak. Hope that doesn’t disappoint. Having said all that, I really love toasted marshmallows.