Ah, January 1st, the new beginning and a chance
to finally get it right this year. Or is it?
Perhaps it is the End of the Beginning. When we began as a
nation, we were full of hope and idealism. We believed that every person could
thrive and prosper if they worked hard and learned from their past mistakes.
Today, can we honestly say we believe that hard work will
take us in the direction of our dreams? What happened to us? Where are we
Our current world is divided by simplistic media sound
bites, which are in turn driven by extreme ideological political rhetoric and
intolerance. This increasingly vitriolic politicization of beliefs does not
unite us to a common goal; instead it creates wedges between us and destroys
family, community and civil discourse.
The foundation for an ideal democratic system is the
recognition that each and every individual has a right to believe anything they
wish to believe and to express those beliefs within the rule of law.
It is time for ordinary individuals to step up to some of
the most profound and relevant philosophical questions in our history and
confront the fact that ‘who we are’ and what we believe may be more important
than what we do.
We are confronted daily with a host of beliefs on a
multitude of topics. This raises the question: “How can we distinguish the
value of one belief compared to another—particularly when they conflict?”
Beliefs are, for the most part, strongly held assessments
and opinions. Beliefs are not true (or false) and they cannot be “proven”. If
something can be proven, it is a “fact”—not a “belief”. We all know as a “fact”
that water will freeze at a certain temperature. Certain statements in the
media and by others purport to be “facts” when they are in reality “beliefs”.
For example, we may hear that Joe Smith is an idiot. While you may be able to
prove certain things about Joe Smith, your statement that he is an idiot will
always be relative to an observer and our personal experience. He may be
“smarter” than Bob, but “dumber” than Mary, but his personal intelligence will
always be relative to some standard or to some set of beliefs. Joe may be
creative but do poorly on tests. Does this make him an “idiot”?
philosophically and linguistically ‘true’ that a belief can never be true or
false, it is also true that we cannot live without beliefs and judgments.
We must make choices. And our choices are generally based on our assessments.
Most people live and act as if their assessments (points of view) are true.
They will generally defend their point of view if attacked or attempt to impose
their view on others where possible. Many people are more committed to being
right about their point of view than they are to the results they are
supposedly committed to producing in their lives and in their work.
The extreme manifestation of this rigid belief in the
unassailable ‘truth’ of our beliefs is easily seen in situations of political
or religious intolerance—people literally engaged in destroying relationship,
community and even society in the name of righteousness and a refusal to listen
to other views as equally valid to one’s own.
This does not mean that all views are the same: some may be
well grounded, while others may be strictly a matter of opinion or faith.
Our individual and collective challenge is to learn to value
the diversity of our differing views (thank goodness we don’t all have the same
point of view) while at the same time developing rigorous practices for
communicating and coordinating collective action—given our differences.
We must learn to distinguish between ‘alignment’ (which is a
function of commitment) and ‘agreement’ (which is a function of intellect and
shared background understanding).
In the final
analysis, our future will be a function of our actions and choices. The power
to create a common future that can work for everyone requires we learn to
listen generously to one another, to authentically express our experience and
points of view and, most importantly, to be open to the possibility that we can
always accomplish more together than we can independently or working in
opposition to one another.
I am reminded of Churchill’s famous speech to the British
people during one of their darkest hours when the outcome of the war was far
from certain. He said, “This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of
the end, but it is the end of the beginning.” So on this New Year’s Day 2012,
let’s acknowledge and remember the strengths of what the past has taught us.
We must acknowledge our enormous success as a country, and
give credit where it is due. We are rightly proud of our belief in individual
liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the checks and balances on the power of
the state over the individual, the full adherence to the rule of law, and the
independence of the judiciary from the political structures that govern us. These
ideals and principles are every bit as valid today as when they were first
articulated by our founding fathers.
To safeguard the above noted principles, we absolutely must
avoid outdated or rigid “either-or” beliefs. We must relearn the benefits of
tolerance, authentic listening and civil discourse.
We have the capacity through our choices and our
relationships with one another to create equally unprecedented outcomes in the
future that work for everyone. The
challenge and the choices are up to all of us.