This is the third post in a series called Making it Count about getting things done and using our precious hours wisely1.
It’s been a while since the last post in this series. I have a whole list of things that I want to say, but based on feedback from from several smart people who know me well, I am compelled to write a post that dives a little deeper into the topic of belief. The last essay2 discussed the mechanics of belief as they play out in a given moment. Here’s an excerpt:
If action flows from belief, we need to be very careful about what we believe so that what we do will put us on the path we want.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as setting the bearing once and letting everything take care of itself. Humans don’t work that way. We are good at deciding on what we want our destinations to be (“I want to be a good parent,” “I want to get better at writing,” etc.), but our fickle minds and hearts, along with the circumstances in our lives, constantly throw us off course. While we might value our commitment to an end goal, we often choose to believe things contrary to that goal because of convenience, stress, success, failure, personality—fill in the blank.
Why write another philosophical post?
I am writing this post because talking about belief in the context of a given moment, while extremely valuable, doesn’t paint the whole picture of what I believe about those systems, or why our minds and hearts are so fickle.
Also, for those who can’t help but ask additional questions, talking about my beliefs in a given moment simply won’t close the philosophical loop that the topic opens. So, yes, a bit more philosophy before we dive into the practical; don’t worry, we will get there!
Threads of belief
I am a naturally inquisitive person. I inundated my parents with questions growing up; when it was cold outside and harder for the car to start, I wanted to know what characteristics of the engine caused that behavior. That curiosity hasn’t waned. I think it comes from a desire to know why something works the way it does, or why a certain thing is the way it is—I’ve never been satisfied until I could see the whole picture, or at least as much as I could comprehend. (Oh, to have had Google as a child.)
The blessing and curse of seeking the why behind things is that many times my own questions lead to even more questions before answers. Nowhere is this more true than in personal philosophy and what we believe.
Generally, the starting place is a ‘simple’ belief. I like to think of those as the end of a thread that leads into a larger piece of fabric. If you find the end of a thread and begin to follow it, you will inevitably encounter additional (and likely deeper) questions along the way. All of the threads of our beliefs are woven together to create our view of ourselves, of others and of the world.
The important question is how this process plays out practically in our lives. I’ll give you an example of how it might work in my mind.
In the previous article, I stated that:
I believe that I need to be an amazing husband to my wife and spend quality time with her.
This is the beginning of a thread, a ‘simple’ belief. You don’t have to go too far for things to get deep, though, because a simple answer always leads to more questions. Here’s one path my mind might follow:
I need to be a good husband.
Why do I need to be a good husband?
Because you need to be a good person.
Why do I need to be a good person?
Because it’s not good to treat people poorly.
If it’s bad to treat people poorly, why can’t I avoid hurting people sometimes?
Where do these ideas even come from? Why (and how) do I have this idea inside of me that I shouldn’t treat people badly?
Speaking of which, where the hell did I come from, and why am I here?
Within a few minutes I’ve catapulted myself from wanting to be a good husband to asking the age old questions, “why do people hurt each other” and, “why do I exist?”
These are incredibly difficult and endlessly debated questions. Building a view of ourselves and the world is not work for the faint of heart. But it is important work. We’ve already established that action flows from belief, but if those beliefs aren’t anchored to anything, we will face a fundamental challenge in setting a proper bearing in life. These anchors are found in the your answers the hard questions—the ones your threads of belief lead you to.
Asking Questions is the Point
I’ve written this post more for me than anyone else. That said, if you asked me what I would want a reader to glean from these words, the answer would be simple: begin (or continue) to relentlessly pursue answers to the hard questions. Or, more simply, seek truth, even if the path is difficult.
Many people are content with not asking these questions, which is understandable on some level because the potential for finding things we don’t like in the truth exists. For others (and me, much of the time), comfort or wealth or circumstance insulates us from feeling like we need to ask hard questions. Life is good, so why rock the boat? The short answer is that your life being some version of good doesn’t equate to your life being meaningful.
Knowing what matters most ensures that we’ll actually invest our lives, not just bury them in meaningless pursuits.
—Rachel Starr Thomson
At the end of the day, each of us, on some level, wants to live a life that matters somehow. That desire is the foundation for this series of posts, hence the title, “Making it Count”.
Beyond the need to begin asking questions, though, continuing to ask them is just as important. If you’ve never thought about why you exist before, it’s unlikely that you’re going to find a tidy and satisfying answer immediately. It’s also unlikely that you’ll find satisfying answers in a simple essay like the one you’re reading right now—and rightly so. These subjects plumb the depths of our our minds and hearts and the truth beyond, and there aren’t often shortcuts when traveling that path.
Following your threads of belief and weaving your view of your place in the world is a journey, one that’s worth carefully considered progress each step of the way.
Finding my Anchor
It’s at this point in the conversation that heated discussion and passionate disagreement generally begins. I’d like to ward off any non-civil discussion by reminding you that my goal is to explain what I believe and encourage people to ask questions. Unfortunately, the internet has largely become a poor forum for civil discourse. I’m happy to answer questions but have no time for personal attacks or vitriol.
I’ve followed the threads of my belief and faced the difficult questions like the ones above, and as I’ve explored answers, Christianity and the Bible are the only place I’ve found comprehensive answers to all of them. Finding those answers at the end of my threads is the reason I am a Christian.
This post isn’t a platform for apologetics, but I will say that the question that has had the highest impact on me is, “why can’t I avoid hurting people sometimes?”
A whole lot of religion and philosophy focuses on being a good person, or being a good enough person to achieve some certain outcome. Even though some people would say I’m a “good man,” the reality is that I’m incredibly selfish and make stupid decisions all of the time, many of which hurt other people. There is something wrong inside of me that makes me tend towards wrong, and no matter what I’ve tried I can’t straighten that bent by my own power or strength.
Christianity is the only set of answers I’ve found that deals both with the problem of evil in the world, and, more importantly, the problems of evil that I find inside of myself.
In it I also find my purpose for loving my wife, working hard at my job and keeping my bearing set on a course that will produce a meaningful and life, not just whatever I might consider a good one.
There are, of course, thousands of other considerations that go into this discussion that I haven’t covered, but one thing is for sure: no matter where you are, the right place to start is asking questions.
I intend on continuing my pursuit and I challenge you to do the same.