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What If My Beliefs Aren’t True?

Hiram Johnson (1866-1945) has been described as a Progressive Republican senator from California. He coined the phrase “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.”

No doubt those who have lived through war across the world will have witnessed the wisdom in Johnson’s words. In its lead up and on commencement, claims, and counterclaims about who said what or who started firing first, or who is at fault abound.

Similarly in other, less life-threatening disputes that divide the population of one country and seep into homes and workplaces, discerning what’s true and what’s not, can be tricky. Especially in an age when the old idea of “fake news” has become more prevalent and is common parlance.

I’m no expert in distinguishing between a conspiracy theory and a true story. Like all of us, I too have biases that render me prone to living in echo chambers that facilitate confirmation of beliefs I want to hang onto and the rebuttal of those I’m uncomfortable with. That said, I’ve recently been thinking more about the what-is-true question. Frankly, I’ve not found it easy, it’s been quite a struggle. However, with the intention of helping others on a similar quest and being open up to the idea that what makes sense to me may be completely flawed in others’ sense-making, I thought I’d share where my reasoning has got to so far.

A useful starting point, it seems to me, is to determine whether we are looking at any given situation from a what-is or what-ought-to-be perspective. We can do both of course, but here’s why I think it’s important to be aware of which particular lens we’re using.

When I look inside myself I notice several things are always running, without me willing them to. I automatically breathe in and out for instance. Air travels across my vocal cords and makes sounds. My heart is beating and my blood circulating. My senses are being triggered by what’s going on in my immediate environment; I am conscious of what I see, touch, smell, taste and hear. Thoughts arise too: they add meaning, evoke feelings and shape my experience of whatever’s happening.

All of this just is. 

What causes it is somewhat mysterious. Where does the energy that gives us consciousness and thoughts come from? This is a hard question to answer and one that academics across many disciplines have studied across millennia.

I don’t claim to have an answer either, just a term I use – “formless energy” – to describe it rather than explain it. “Formless” because once I do attempt to describe it I give it form, which, paradoxically, denudes it of its mysteriousness. Formless, therefore, to me at least, highlights this paradox.

Of course, more sacred and different names are ascribed to this energy – God, Universal Spirituality, The Intelligence Behind Life, Holy Spirit, and many more. My purpose here is not to dwell on the rich history and doctrinal significance of each – something that’s way beyond my pay grade – more to acknowledge two observations:

  • This energy gifts we humans the capacity to think and be conscious of whatever we do think via our senses and emotions. In other words, without either of these two gifts human experience would not exist.
  • The gifts of thought and consciousness seem universal. (Note I mean that we have the capacity for both, I’m not talking about the contents of what we each think and are conscious of here.) They apply to all sentient creatures, to those of religious faith and those with none, to those intrigued by the mysteries of macro, cosmic universes as well as those found at the sub-atomic quantum mechanics level.

A bit like gravity exists whether we’re aware of it or not, similarly the gifts of thought and consciousness. To me, they are the building blocks on which we humans’ realities are created. What looks true to us rests on them. Put another way the meanings we attach to thoughts that pop into our head, and the way consciousness brings these to life via our senses and emotions determines what looks true and untrue to us.

I was mindful of this when listening to an excellent BBC podcast called The Coming Storm, which investigated the origins of what has become known as QAnon. It wondered what was behind a conspiracy theory, do they contain grains of truth, etc. I listened to it with a family member. His rueful reflection on it was, “Not so long back, as the world emerged from modernity into postmodernism, philosophies, religions, theories and other ideas that used a grand or meta-narrative to provide meaning in people’s lives were largely rejected in favour of your truth is your truth and mine is mine.” His concern? Individualism trumps our sense of community.

I saw it differently though. I wondered whether, from a what-is perspective, your truth is your truth and mine is mine has…well…a ring of truth about it. It seems to me that at every moment, you, me, and everyone else on the planet, are experiencing our separate realities via the gifts of thought and consciousness. I’ve tried to falsify this, but this seems to me to be undeniably true. You?

The challenge of course comes when the realities we do create are harmful, either to ourselves, other humans, sentient creatures, and our planet. Immoral even. What then?

Enter the what-ought-to-be perspective.

It has many forms: laws, behavioural codes, doctrines, scriptural texts, rules, procedures, rituals, and so on. Each, perhaps, designed to direct people towards what’s good for them and away from evil. To become a good person, not an evil one. To reconnect with that formless energy where, many claim, the constant of love is to be found.

I’m all for that. Especially when the ought-to-be perspective does indeed reconnect people with a love that guides their everyday actions.

But what about when it doesn’t?

When groups, be they religious, ethnic, tribal, gender-based, etc., or departments, factions, and cliques within an organisational boundary attack one another because their reality is one of fear, not love, what then? It seems to me this is when we might conclude the what-ought-to-be perspective has either broken down or is going awry. At these inflection points, two alternatives open up:

  • double down on the what-ought-to-be to create compliance and obedience through more fear
  • turn back to the what-is perspective.

By taking the latter course, we awareness of how all humans are experiencing a thought-created reality rises. And with such realisation comes several significant probabilities:

  • we see the limitations in any what-ought-to-be perspective that curtails our self-sovereignty – our ability to decide for ourselves
  • we see that we humans have the two gifts in common: we ‘get’ what happens on the reality-creation front
  • we can ask ourselves what if my beliefs aren’t true: what if those ideas I’ve assumed to be true for a long time no longer apply to the times we live in?
  • and when answering that question we might rediscover the freedom we need to a) notice what was previously inaccessible – love’s essence said to be a constant within that universal formless energy, (or whatever your word for it is) – and b) freely choose to be guided by it more often than would otherwise be the case.

At a time when war and divisions are rearing their ugly heads, Johnson’s quote is poignant. But the what-is-true question is not an easy one to either think through or speak about. Expectations that you will think and speak in the right way are high. We are invited to belong to one camp or another and there could be dire consequences attached to our choice.

I understand that. Survival and safety can depend on us being as one.

And, if we are to find peace, would we also be wise to understand what thoughts our enemies are attended to, and the fear that makes them conscious of, which is driving their behaviour? Might we conclude if we were living in the same thinking they are, we’re likely to be fearful too? – there but for the Grace of God go I… Might we see what’s true with our what-is lenses very differently from what shows up when all we have available is our what-ought-to-be lenses?

Let me know whether this makes any sense to what you believe is true when disagreements arise.

Roger Martin
Roger Martinhttps://www.themindsetdifference.com/
I’ve had the privilege of working in the team and leadership development space for over 30 years now. I see myself as a student of what works best for those who want to be at their best more often. During that time I’ve had to learn to not be the guru with a box of tricks and pre-set answers. No two circumstances and sets of people are the same, and though once a fan of cookie-cutter solutions, am now somewhat wary of them. Staying in student mode keeps my curiosity level high and focused on those nuances that have the potential to make a big difference. In 2016 I co-founded The Mindset Difference. We are a niche London-based consultancy dedicated to helping leaders be at their best, irrespective of the circumstances they face. We see ourselves as pioneers in the leadership and team development space because rather than add more knowledge and skills into leaders' busy minds, we help them subtract thinking that prevents access to those innate qualities they already have - compassion, creativity, resilience, resourcefulness, collaboration, etc. Oh, and I enjoy writing too. That’s why I’m here doing what I can to help you tap into your own innate qualities.

1 COMMENT

  1. First, when I saw your name in Dennis Linkedin post, I knew I had to read, Roger.

    Second, I think the most central, scary, and humiliating part is in your last line: There but for the grace of God go I.

    Sure, “I” would never… or always … but the grace might be that “I” was born into this family and not that family.

    The finger pointing and tribal verbal or physical warfare usually don’t deal with this first privilege. It comes from “all other things equal, if I had been in those circumstances, I would have done this and not that.” But that is a moot point because all other things wouldn’t have been equal.

    The humiliating part is to recognize how much our present situation has been formed in the interaction with other people and few of those resources might have been available but for the grace of God.

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