I took a couple of English courses in college requiring I write poems, and I wrote quite a few. An instructor remarked at the time: “Your poetry is very personal.” This was not a compliment. He explained that my efforts were poems with little meaning to anyone but me. They were sound in structure, but narrow in expression. It represented a view of my personal life and conflicts, but not in a way that illuminated it for anyone else. I was doing little more than writing irate, self-aggrandizing editorials with a rhythm and rhyme scheme.
I was then a young married father, with all of the associated struggles. I had a good job, but knew I would find my level in it sooner or later, and it wouldn’t be all that high. The war in Vietnam was turning into the horror many had feared. The Peace Movement was burgeoning. The skirmishes for civil rights had begun. Smoke was in the air and it wasn’t all gunpowder or tobacco. I was an angry young man. Worse, I bought with unquestioned agreement, into almost every extreme pronouncement that complimented my own resentments. I had become what can easily turn into that most dangerous of humans – The True Believer.
Believers of one stripe or another have been around as long as humankind. That’s a good thing. Belief precedes experiment, which precedes verification, and well – it’s the only way we ever gather the facts on anything. Scientists call it a hypothesis. Copernicus woke up one morning and said to himself, “Gee, I believe the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around!” He was, as it happened, a great mathematician and developed a heliocentric model that made sense. Let me extemporize on that a bit. Copernicus couldn’t prove his belief – but no other mathematical model made sense to him. Those who believed otherwise went to great lengths to construct models that were torturous in their description of how things worked. These models did, however, jibe with the religious dogma of the time. Although Copernicus got away with it, Galileo, born almost a hundred years later, took most of the heat for this hypothesis – almost literally; he was threatened with death at the stake if he didn’t recant. This threat came from – you guessed it – True Believers.
Now there is nothing wrong with true belief on its face. And there is nothing wrong with an enthusiastic and impassioned defense of it. In their time, humans have given unquestioned obeisance to Paleolithic superstitions, Bronze Age myths and legends, Hebrew tribal laws, prophets, shamans and cultists, medieval alchemists, mystics, psychics and self-proclaimed wizards. All of these authorities have vestigial form today, and we have upped the ante with media-fueled baloney by the megaton. You are free to believe any of this you want. Be my guest.
If it were left at that, people could go merrily on their way chasing Bigfoot or hunting down the Appalachian Devil Monkeys. But a lot of True Believers don’t want to leave it at that. True Believers have harassed and taunted women and gays; True Believers have killed, with routine nonchalance, young people who made romantic attachments their families didn’t approve of; True Believers have flown airplanes into skyscrapers; True Believers have concocted bogus evidence to justify inciting wars. Like the old geocentric model makers, True Believers have warped new insights or observable evidence to match their convictions. “If you don’t like the diagnosis,” said the quack surgeon, “we’ll retouch the X-rays!”
I once attended a religious ceremony where a man officiating told me that I was cursed if I did not believe as he believed. I would, he assured me, roast in perpetual torment after I died, unless I adopted his particular beliefs. He did not actually say that he had placed a curse on me, but it wouldn’t be putting too fine a point on it to interpret it that way, if you ask me.
Well, I didn’t believe that for a minute, and would have told him so, but held to manners I had learned at mother’s knee – a lack of which apparently did not trouble him. His position, to be sure, was met with murmurs of approval from a sizeable part of those in attendance – troubling in itself. The rest sat on their hands along with me and accepted their damnation with polite demeanor. He graciously invited anyone troubled by his pronouncements to meet with him after the service, where we would be set straight. I demurred.
The world has become infected by TBs. Countries are torn apart by factions settling scores for perceived slights perpetuated centuries ago. Politicians embrace their way or no way. The Age of Chivalry is dead and the Age of Civility is evaporating. Statesmanship is moribund. Progress is deadlocked because negotiation and collaboration are dirty words.
My cafeteria lunch mates and I used to have heated discussions on the day’s hot topics, and great philosophical issues. There were always a couple of TBs in these groups. I represented a puzzling anomaly to them. I confessed to a profound curiosity about our whereabouts in the hereafter, but no real ideas on whatever might take place or whoever might be going wherever.
“But Thurston, you have to believe in something!” I was told.
Note: TBs often express things this way; to which I say “Why?”
“It isn’t just a belief,” I told them. “I know for absolute certainty what happens to us when we die!” This always made them hoot. “We will all be recycled,” I said.
Now you can’t argue with that – and they couldn’t. I’m not talking about that spiritual component. I let the TBs work that part out, and keep it to themselves when they do; but – if every atom in our bodies isn’t sentient, then certainly some critical mass of them must be. We’ll find out one way or another in eight billion years or so when the Sun runs out of fuel and that big fusion bomb implodes and gobbles up its planetary children. Think of that. Assuming we ourselves haven’t incinerated everything by then, our urns or caskets will be atomized and the contents will be off on another adventure. I believe, with no evidence to back it up – Jeez, I’m not a TB, after all – that those contents will accrete again, gravity being what it is, and who knows? Not me, not you, not even Stephen Hawking – who has his own views on it, but is smart enough not to advance them as gospel.
I like the way Richard Feynman put it, “I am a universe of atoms, and an atom in the universe.”
Frankly, there is more empirical evidence to support my scenario than there is the fiery pit described by the proselytizer mentioned earlier.
I eventually returned to poetry after I got over the idea that I had to write angry stuff. I couldn’t begin to match up with Sassoon, anyway: “He’s young; he hated war; how should he die/ when cruel old campaigners win safe through?/ But death replied: ‘I choose him.’ So he went,/ And there was silence in the summer night.”
Whooo! No competing with that! I had to set my sights much lower and settled on doggerel. In fact, I discovered that I didn’t have to knock much polish off of my serious stuff to drop down into this stratum. I whacked out a few lines and thought myself pretty good at it! This would be my poetic niche!
The Lightning Bug
The lightning bug with logic smug,
Lights up the summer skies,
To find a mate and procreate;
Those clever little guys!
The logic here is very clear,
To all who empathize.
So, don’t be coy, dear girl and boy;
It pays to advertise!
Now look – my light verse does not mean that I am glib about the woes of the world. I know full well there is suffering and hunger. Humans can rationalize anything, and a lot of TBs have rationalized cruel responses to ideas they can’t make themselves believe. Don’t join that crowd. One amazing feature of our great gift of free will is the ability to hold several opposing views in our brains at one time without going nuts. Hang out with me for a while.
Here is my belief for this day: It is beautiful outside. I believe I will get a good cigar out of my humidor, give myself a healthy pour of something red, sit out on my deck for an hour or so and ponder all of this. You’re welcome to come over and join me. You can pass on the stogie and choose the booze if you want; or maybe light up a cheroot and pass on the vino. You can bag them both and bring your own iced tea. I don’t believe you’ll be cursed any way you go.
Postscript: The air quality code was green, so my wife joined me on the deck. I didn’t get in an hour of private ponder, but she sat upwind of me, had a glass of wine and the company was welcome. Oh, and later that evening, I came across an article by scientists who have lowered the sun’s time to extinction from 8 billion to around 5.8 billion years. We don’t have as much time left as we thought.
Post-Postscript: A Sermon for the Mellow will be in Chuck Thurston’s next Senior Scribble – “The Bathroom Reader: Your Results May Vary.” He should have it out by the end of this year if the wine and occasional cigar don’t get him first.