Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and author, Victor Frankl tells a lovely little story around the concept of collective guilt. Sometimes, he says, it takes a lot of didactic tricks to detach people from their superstitions. When reproached by a woman for writing his books in German - because it was ‘Hitler’s language’ - Frankl enquires if she has knives in her kitchen. Puzzled, she says yes – and he then asks: ‘How can you still use knives after so many killers have used them to stab and murder their victims?’ After that, he reports, the woman stopped objecting to him writing in German.
Whether or not his accuser really got the point is debatable. She may have simply buttoned her lip and backed off. But Frankl’s rejoinder goes to the heart of this essay. We can convince ourselves of the truth of what we think and articulate, and are taken aback when someone questions the validity of a particular belief. Sometimes – rarely, I would contend – we ‘get it’ immediately - accepting our assumption has been challenged, and we are honest and reflective enough to rethink our position. But the majority of us are not so easily swayed. Our vast collection of beliefs – which can be called our worldview – has infiltrated us since childhood and grown more entrenched as the years pass. Normally, we don’t surrender a single one without something of a struggle.
Why does this matter?
As one of my more loquacious friends is apt to say: ‘I’ll come to that in a moment’. First, however, let me hasten to assure readers this is not a philosophical treatise. I am not intellectually equipped to bore you in this way. Perhaps I will bore you anyway but that’s the risk a writer always runs when he or she ventures onto paper. It goes with the territory, you could say.
No, the impetus for writing about ‘beliefs’ has a mixed origin. We have a small group who meet regularly and talk about topics that could be broadly termed ‘psycho-spiritual’. In Corona-time, we are now confined to Zoom and I’m under the pump to come up with something that engages the others. Having worn many hats over the years – including agnostic idealist, spiritual seeker, lawyer, counsellor and mediator – I’ve experienced the shifting sands of my own belief systems and the varieties of experience that comprise seventy-four years in human form. I’ve seen how beliefs can be useful for structure and sanity while at the same time how they can constrict and divide. Many of us have made similar observations over the course of a lifetime.
As we read something that purports to be authoritative or we listen to somebody state their opinion with a conviction that brooks no argument, we may wonder to ourselves as to the origin and veracity of the beliefs being expressed. We may find ourselves nodding in agreement or expressing a counter argument or simply acknowledging we haven’t a clue. Far too often the discourse will disintegrate into the slings and arrows of ‘my facts’ are superior to ‘your facts’ – which carries a clear subtext of ‘I’m right’ and ‘you’re wrong’. And of course this plays out collectively with competing political ideologies, religions, cultural practices, and group allegiances of infinite variety. All of which can add up to reflexive hostility and disagreement rather than understanding and cooperation.
Also, in the world of mental health, particular attention is paid to a person’s beliefs. Part of the challenge for the therapist is to unlock and explore unhelpful constructs and ideas that act as an unseen operating system within an individual mind. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example, employs sophisticated techniques in this arena.
So beliefs – at least in the way I am using the term – do matter. They inform how each of us think and act from day to day – or, more precisely, from moment to moment.
Before continuing, it may be helpful to drill down into some categories of belief. Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus offers four meanings, where the word is used as a noun:
1. A principle, accepted as true or real, especially without proof.
2. Opinion, conviction.
3. Religious faith.
4. Trust or confidence, as in a person’s abilities.
Here, I will concentrate on the first two categories, as well as touch on the third.
First let’s dispatch one issue that is not expressly covered in the above definition. This is the issue of learned experience. If I flick the light switch I can be pretty confident my room will be illuminated. Or if I hop on my bike and begin to pedal, I can anticipate the wheels will begin to turn. These are activities I have undertaken countless times – activities that involve cause and effect. There are certain principles involved and if I was scientifically adroit I could articulate the physics or the chemistry or whatever process ensured that if I did ‘A’ then ‘B’ would normally follow. The proof, in each case, is in the pudding.
We don’t usually think of examples like these as beliefs. They fall more in the realm of what we have learnt in the past and what we can place our confidence in the future. So we can exclude them from our definition in that they are not merely our opinion, and nor are they ideas we might have imagined but not tested, let alone proven to the satisfaction of both ourselves and others.
How do beliefs arise?
It’s sometimes said we arrive in this world as a tabla rasa – a blank slate. As innocent babes, our minds are undeveloped. How we progress from childhood to adolescence to adulthood will depend in part to the nature of our upbringing and the circumstances in which we live. We will learn the values of our parents and of the society into which we have been born. Often we inherit the religion and habits of those around us. We are conditioned during childhood – and it will be some time before we can think for ourselves and hold independent opinions. Some manage this far quicker than others!
Now the notion of a tabla rasa might make more sense to a psychologist than it does to those who look at ancestral influences or 'inherited' traits - or to a geneticist. Our genetic make-up is imprinted prior to birth and will be a determinant in our appearance, our health, and perhaps in other ways. But it is not usually held responsible for what we believe or come to believe. This process – the acquisition of our basket of beliefs - also carries an evolutionary flavour but has more to do with what we absorb from other people – their beliefs or worldviews, augmented by what we begin to figure out for ourselves, usually by the onset of adolescence. Passing through normal developmental stages, we begin to question and to argue and to doubt. All healthy qualities in their own right. By the time we are technically adults, we have something of a notion of what the world offers and our place in it. But the story does not end there.
In the passage of time, our viewpoints can change as we become exposed to other influences, whether they are people or ideas. We also use our ears and eyes to observe and tune into society, as well as respond emotionally to situations and events. Indeed, feelings and what we might term intuition can play a hidden part in the formation of our belief structures. These responses and observations help to cement, undermine or modify our ‘younger’ opinions. In other words, the beliefs of mature adults are not normally an exact replica of the beliefs of their childhood.
Well-founded beliefs as against ill-founded beliefs
This is a minefield. But it goes to the core of the topic. Throughout the ages there have been many beliefs that appeared very well-founded at the time, given the state of knowledge of the universe and the means to investigate whether alternative explanations might be more accurate. The most famous example is the belief that Planet Earth was flat. When I studied history this was held up as a pre-scientific belief and it was only 400 years ago or thereabouts that Galileo and others debunked the idea. Having the telescope at their disposal played a pivotal part. Ironically, modern scholarship suggests that, going back to the ancient Greeks, most educated people thought in terms of a spherical earth. In the 17th century, when science and religion began to clash, vested interests propagated the fable of a flat earth in an effort to impugn the beliefs of pre-modern civilisation. If so, this is an early example where misrepresenting what others believe is a tried and tested tactic for dismissing their opinions and ideas.
Science has come a long way since the 1600s. But there is recognition that scientific enquiry, too, is built upon shifting sands. Newtonian theory gave way to quantum physics – and many of today’s scientists are quick to acknowledge that their field carries as many questions as it does answers.
Nonetheless, rationality and the methods by which information is processed remain key to sorting the wheat from the chaff. If I look down at my desk and believe it is made from the finest oak rather than plastic-coated particle board then I only need to chisel out a piece to reveal I am deluding myself. Patently, my belief was ill-founded – a hope, or a figment of my imagination.
In less obvious examples, it is much more difficult to determine which set of beliefs carry more weight than others. Different political ideologies are a case in point. Those with a capitalist orientation put their eggs into the market. They believe in growth and globalisation. Those whose orientation is more socialist in nature are apt to emphasise state intervention and welfare. Meanwhile, green groups believe the focus should be upon the health of the planet. Each camp can mount strong arguments.
Whether we are talking about individuals or groups, the principle is the same. What might appear well-founded to some will be poorly conceived and anathema to others – and vice versa. One of the challenges – which I will address a little later – is whether and how it is possible to build bridges between these contrary and contrasting beliefs.
The connection between values and beliefs
If we deconstruct why people prefer one point of view over another, it will usually have something to do with what they hold important. They place a higher value upon what they believe than they do upon a viewpoint that differs.
By way of example, many people prefer regular exercise to no exercise at all. Just why they value exercise can be simple or complicated. ‘I feel better’, would be a straightforward, simple response. ‘I hate jogging but I’ve been told by my doctor I need to get my weight down’. Slightly more complicated – with the underlying assumption this person, though they don’t value exercise per se, they do value improving their health and by implication, living longer.
Another, somewhat deeper, example has psychological and existential roots. Generally speaking, we like things to be predictable. Sudden, unexpected changes can throw us off course. We struggle to adjust. This can be as straightforward as the loss of a job or the breakdown of a relationship. Or, shifting from the personal to the universal, the rapid descent into the abyss of a pandemic. Put another way, we value certainty over uncertainty. We believe we will be better off emotionally, physically, economically, and socially as long as there is a fair measure of stability within the external world to which we awaken each morning. Normally we are not even aware we hold such a belief. It seems so obvious. Given choice, who would want to wake up in a war zone or in a drought-ravaged land where the rains had become unpredictable?
The existential fear of uncertainty has a lot to do with survival. Though we know we will succumb to death one day, we usually hope that day is far off. Meanwhile, we seek happiness and prosperity and keep our fingers crossed that nothing will rock our particular boat. But – surprise, surprise - our boats are there to be rocked. While death and taxes may remain certain, the normal vicissitudes of life guarantee an ever-changing ocean. While we value stability, we are acutely aware that illness, injury or impoverishment can lie around the corner. On a macro level, our global village of more than seven and a half billion inhabitants continues to revolve on a wheel that contains cataclysmic climactic events, warfare, poverty and pestilence. In the Information Age, if we are not facing the prospect of one disaster or another, we are hearing about them ad nauseam. Our beliefs can become our life rafts, especially if we are able to adapt to changing circumstances. Alternatively, if our beliefs remain inflexible, we may find ourselves on the ocean floor.
Science and Religion
One of the key areas where opposing belief systems come into regular conflict occurs in the realms of science and religion. For most of human history the operating belief systems would now be described as magic or mythical. In order to make sense of their worlds, homage was paid to ‘Gods’, animals, objects, or entities such as the moon and the sun. With the onset of established religions in Europe and Asia, these representations of the divine were incarnated humans – Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu and more. In other societies – the Americas, Australia and the Pacific, and Africa – so-called primitive spiritual beliefs remained the norm.
Then came scientific method. Through the processes of reasoning, hypothesising, deducing, testing, and calculating, the new men of science began to dismantle cherished beliefs and the ancient texts in which they had been recorded. The fight was on.
I won’t go over that ground here. What is more interesting is to fast-forward to the present. Many of my contemporaries have shucked their religious past, if indeed they had one. Most are keenly rationalist, well and truly ensconced in the scientific camp. Some may pay heed to the edicts of the Ten Commandments but that is a faint hum in the background. In their eyes, spirituality is conflated with organised religion – and neither has any appeal. On the contrary, those who hold different views or are more open to spiritual exploration are often indulged with politeness at best – or, less charitably, with condescension or outright disdain. A public example who comes to mind is the veritable Phillip Adams, still writing for The Australian. In my youth, he was a must-read – an intelligent larrikin of the Left. Now he has become a bore. I quote from his column in a recent Weekend Magazine: ‘Meditation? Like masturbation, that’s always seemed a form of self-abuse.’
Adams may be tongue in cheek but his words and opinions are typical of chest-thumping professional atheists who propagate their views with conversation-numbing certainty. Another of life’s ironies. These are the same people who are given a pulpit allegedly for their great minds and breadth of experience. Yet there is a realm of experience they routinely exclude or denigrate – the world of metaphysics – because it is a world inaccessible to the dictates of logic and thus has no value.
You can see where my sympathies lie. Once upon a time I was an armchair agnostic. Logic and common sense formed part of my bedrock of belief. With certain qualifications, they still do. But happenstance and experience has taken me a different route to the likes of Adams. Not that I fell back into organised religion. The belief system around Christianity – the faith of my forbears – reached its use-by-date before my first pubic hairs emerged. But it took nearly two more decades before I could embrace spiritual longing and value the mysterious path along which I was drawn. Little did I know about the many traps that lay ahead. These have been covered in my memoir, Whirlpool. One of the traps that lay hidden – and may not have been articulated in my book – was the potential to swap one belief system for another.
Today, a combination of experience and understanding sees me hold a firm belief that the gap between science and religion can be bridged. They can be seen as complementary rather than at odds with one another. Some with skin in the game, including spiritual leaders and scientists, recognise this. The Dalai Lama has been very proactive over the years, facilitating discussions between scientists and his Buddhist brethren. One of the key points revolves around the way in which we claim to know things. Scientific method is well understood and the findings of various branches of science can be regarded, at least temporarily, as ‘knowledge’. Mystics use other methods, usually involving forms of contemplation such as meditation. These are inward looking rather than outward facing processes. Necessarily subjective, spiritual experiences or insights cannot be ‘proved’ through objective approaches – and therefore lend themselves to being brushed off as inconsequential or illusory. ‘Scientific’ investigation, by my reckoning, then topples into its own trap. It excludes a form of evidence that it refuses to regard as evidence. And so the divide continues.
Spiritual Authenticity opposed to New-Age Wishful Thinking
One of the main reasons for the brush off referred to above is the relatively recent preponderance of New-Age ‘spirituality’. Often spruiked by charismatic pseudo-visionaries, whose messages often invoke the term ‘holistic’ and a promise of material prosperity and lasting happiness, the New Age movement has a whole subculture of believers. If they follow the precepts of their latest marketing guru, abundance and good health will follow. Perhaps I am being too harsh. Some of the messages contain an invitation to re-examine one’s life, work out what is important, and what might be standing in the way. No problem with that. Problems only arise when the promises fail to deliver. It’s not portrayed as the fault of the guru or his or her teaching. It’s the follower who falls short – either not being earnest enough or positive enough to merit success. And that’s not the only source of confusion. New Age ideas are often glad-wrapped in the language of spiritual traditions and practices. They are seductive, appearing to address deep-seated human needs – whereas in fact they tap into the frothy delusions of the young and virtuous. How often have you heard somebody say ‘I’m a spiritual person’ – and then you look at their life and wonder what the hell they are on about.
For most of us, the spiritual road is arduous and unending. True, there are moments of exhilaration, bliss, and profound recognition. Yet we also come to see there is ongoing work to be done, especially around the difficult aspects of our relationship to ourselves and to others. This shadow work is often neglected – especially so, I would say, in New-Age circles. What then happens is what the late John Welwood called ‘spiritual bypassing’ – a form of jumping over the challenges rather than embrace them and see what they are made of. This seems to apply to those who want an instant recipe for personal transformation and avoid doing the hard yards. It can also apply to long-term meditators who take refuge in their meditation practice, and ignore or deny issues that arise in daily life.
Beliefs and Information
From the areas I have been canvassing it’s easy to spot a link between our beliefs and the information we receive and process. Ideally, before we form an opinion, we will have explored all the bases – reading, listening, or researching - so that we have enough detail at our disposal to come up with a ‘well-founded’ belief. In practice, however, this is absurdly difficult. On any contentious subject, there is information overload. Even if we have time and inclination, we can’t address everything. Sometimes, we can barely scratch the surface. Yet we form opinions – and so we must. We don’t want to be doormats, trampled by the certainties of others. We don’t want to be uninformed and appear ignorant. We’d usually prefer to be part of the show rather than a dumbstruck bystander.
In pre-Internet days much of our childhood information was obtained from parents and teachers, and – within religious households – from church leaders. As we grew up we began to read books, as well as to ingest news and current affairs from the daily paper and on television. If we were lucky, we were taught to discriminate – or we eventually began to teach ourselves. If we were lucky enough to receive an ongoing education, this discerning quality was refined, as we thought, studied, and argued our way within university and beyond. Today, that pattern has been arguably obliterated. Authority, for want of a better word, is at our fingertips – the authority of Google and Wikipedia – and the opinionistas and influencers who range far and wide on social media. From this churning morass, we are invited to inform ourselves and to fashion our beliefs. Crazy, when you think about it.
I’m not yearning for the past. 20th-century media had its biases. But we tended to trust our journalists even if we were uncertain about the proprietors of the papers for which they wrote. Here in Western Australia, before we gained a national newspaper in the mid-1960s, we had a morning newspaper and another one in the evening. There were good journalists around – but the number of in-depth and penetrating articles was limited. When television descended upon us, it brought expanded opportunities for commentary and opinion-making. If you could wade through the dross of popular entertainment, you could find excellent, penetrating analysis, particularly on the ABC. And if you were inclined, you could settle down in the university library and read high-quality foreign newspapers, magazines and journals. In short, you could get a reasonable picture of the world. And unless you were already something of an anarchist, you tended to trust that picture.
Today, trust has evaporated on many fronts. A significant number of people, particularly the young, don’t read newspapers or watch news programs on television. Many don’t seem to have imbibed much history and have limited interest in politics. Opinions are shaped online. From the plethora of information available, choices are made about what to believe and what to discard. It’s very much a 21st-century phenomena – one that has attracted the attention of many commentators. Which leads me back to the subject of whether a belief is well-considered or ill-founded.
The corona-virus has infected more than our bodies. It has sucked conspiracy theorists of all kinds out of the woodwork. These folk have long made an art form of a worldview that sees sinister motives in government policies and pronouncements, particularly in the USA. Through selective ‘research’ and interpretation, they seek to convince others that 9/11 was an inside job, orchestrated by some form of Deep State that acts as a puppet-master behind the scenes. They tend to believe the world is controlled by a shadowy few, and the rest of us are automons, blithely unaware we are being manipulated. Those in the conspiracy camp adopt the high moral ground, although they, too, tend to operate in the murky twilight, behind the protective walls of the Internet.
What motivates these people? It probably varies from individual to individual – but I would hazard a guess there is a shared psychology that may have something to do with fear and control, as well as excessive self-importance and its flipside – lack of self-worth. But that’s just my two bobs worth – and I may well be off the mark.
What can be seen, however, are the pernicious effects of these beliefs. In the case of Covid 19, the conspiracists snipe at the government and pluck at straws in an attempt to devalue the seriousness of the pandemic. Early on, the spread was blamed on an American (or Chinese) experiment gone wrong rather than an emergence from a wild animal market in Wuhan. Alternatively, it was a deliberate act on the part of the Chinese or the Americans. Now, 5G technology has been roped in. Its release in China is supposed to have caused the virus. (Conveniently ignored are the similar origins of previous outbreaks, such as SARS and Asian flu.)
Many of these theories are emanating from anti-vaccine circles. Bill Gates, presumably for his interest in wiping out malaria, is a fall guy, a regular bête noire. He wants to control the vaccine market and make more money, cry these voices from the dark. Others try to poke holes in the accuracy of the testing methods, the mortality rates and the infectious nature of the disease – often claiming it is no worse than the flu. These arguments are patently selective and often demonstrably wrong. To be sure, governments around the world have had to learn on the job. Mistakes have been made and decisions, when we have the luxury to review them further down the track, will be seen for what they are – the best attempts under urgent circumstances. At the time of writing, it seems pretty clear that those who denigrate the government and try to play up so-called ‘fear-mongering’ are pushing their own barrows, aided and abetted – unconsciously – by their belief systems. In the main, they completely ignore the spread of infection and the horrendous death rates that took place in Wuhan before the clampdown – and continue to occur in Europe and America. And I suspect they are not tuned into what might be happening soon in India, Indonesia, the African continent and throughout South America. On the face of it, their compassion for those who die – and could otherwise have been saved – seems non-existent.
What do we get for holding a belief?
Now is the moment to explore this question. It’s not a question we think about very much. ‘What do we get?’ Do we have to get something out of maintaining an opinion? Ralph Lewis, University of Toronto psychiatrist, states that beliefs are ‘energy-saving shortcuts in modelling and predicting the environment’. He then goes on to talk about the brain – much as you might expect from a psychiatrist. The brain, he says, is a ‘prediction machine’ enabling us to take shortcuts in processing information. ‘In jumping to conclusions, our brains have a preference for familiar conclusions over unfamiliar ones. Thus, our brains are prone to error, sometimes seeing patterns where there are none. This may or may not be subsequently identified and corrected by error detection mechanisms. It’s a trade-off between efficiency and accuracy.’
I broadly agree with Lewis that ‘we give our subjective experience too much credence, and so too our beliefs. We will more readily explain away evidence that contradicts our cherished belief by expanding and elaborating that belief with additional layers of distorted explanation, rather than abandoning it or fundamentally restructuring it’.
Lewis points out we might resist changing our beliefs because they are fundamental to how we define ourselves – our self-concept. We get nervous if that’s brought into question and it may embarrass us. And, of course ‘people have a lot invested personally in their belief system. They may have staked their reputation on a particular belief. Not infrequently, people structure their whole lives around a belief.’
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, relates that there is a certain logic behind false beliefs. ‘Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes. Being separated from the tribe – or worse, being cast out – was a death sentence.’
Clear observes that, while it is important to understand the truth of the situation, social connection can actually be more helpful in daily life. He quotes Harvard psychologist, Stephen Pinker: ‘People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.’
From these observations we can see that ill-founded or false beliefs can ‘give’ something to the person who holds them. They are a psychological bulwark – a protective strategy that can bolster our sense of self-esteem and our desire to belong. We can see this on the relational level when somebody expresses something we consider erroneous or misguided. If we value the relationship over being truthful, we may choose to stay silent or pretend to agree. Within organisations – particularly those that do not encourage plain speaking – there are great incentives to agree with one’s superiors. Often it takes courage to be the odd person out – the one who puts up his or her hand and says: ‘well, actually, I don’t think much of that idea. I reckon there’s a better way.’
Strategically, these carefully-calibrated approaches might appear to work. But they can also lead to inertia and overly conservative mindsets. And, on an individual level, they may act as a brake on fulfilling one’s potential.
Are there ways out of this type of impasse?
I would answer in the affirmative. Yes, there are a range of applications that can be added to our belief-busting toolbox. Rational–materialists would apply the blowtorch of scientific enquiry and logical thinking. Psychologists might help us unwind unhelpful patterns. Mystics come from a different angle. In relation to life’s big questions, they invite us to ‘let go’ of beliefs and to explore for ourselves. This can involve processes of self-enquiry where our own experience is the determinant – not what we have read or heard from others. One such teacher – Byron Katie – employs a useful strategy. When we put forward a particular proposition, she has us answer the following four questions:
Is it true? (Your thought, idea, opinion, belief etc)
Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
How do you react when you think that thought?
What would you be without that thought?
Katie then asks that we turn that original thought or belief around. For example, if my initial thought is along the lines of ‘I don’t like her because she criticises me all the time’, my turnaround would be ‘I don’t like myself because I am self-critical’. The invitation then is to check out which statement is more true for me.
If you think this is too simple or even a bit wacky, try it out the next time something comes up that disturbs you. For most of us there is usually plenty of opportunity. In essence, we are shown that thoughts and beliefs, while they can be benign or even helpful, can also lead to suffering when we hold them too tightly.
Of all the religions, Buddhism appears more attuned to this kind of psychological enquiry. In a sense, the teachings are prescriptive – in that they tell you what you should do if you are serious about transforming – but in a wider sense you are being urged to find your own way. In his book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor includes a beautiful quote from the Kalama Sutta:
‘Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought: the monk is our teacher. When you know it in yourselves: these things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness, then you should practice and abide in them.’
Batchelor attempts to bring the focus back to the core teachings of the Buddha. He fully acknowledges that, like in other established religions, original teachings have become creeds (‘isms’) just like scientific method has degraded into ‘scientism’. A better approach, he contends, would be to begin with a base of ‘I don’t know’ – the stance of an agnostic. ‘And agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning.’
This is the stance of the seeker – whether he or she be scientifically or spiritually oriented – or both. From this place, beliefs may form but they are grounded in exploration and direct experience. And in many cases they are held as likely or probable rather than cemented in stone. Batchelor recognises this when he says ‘deep agnosticism is an attitude towards life refined through ongoing mindful awareness.’ There is always light at the end of the tunnel if we allow our minds to unblock and be receptive, rather than cling to the safety of a belief system that may have served us well but can now be discarded or modified.
A Final Vignette
The other night I tuned into an episode of The Drum – a panel discussion on our ABC, the national broadcaster. The conversation focused upon what it is to be a man today. The topic itself made me smile – for there have been many discussions about Australian manhood in my living memory. Perhaps we should blame (or thank) Germaine. Anyway, the talk turned to feelings and whether men were getting any better at sharing what was going on for them. One panellist observed that, in his experience, men were still very reticent when they were in the company of other men. Though he did not say so directly, the inference was men were uncomfortable with appearing vulnerable. He did say, however, that men were prone to offer their opinions whereas women were more inclined to listen and seek the opinions of others. That too made me smile, for it confirms much of my experience around men of my vintage. To me, it’s an indicator of how entrenched our beliefs can become, and how difficult it is to shift position.
Perhaps vulnerability is a keyword in this discussion. When we soften our position, take a deep breath, and embrace the possibility our belief castle is constructed upon dissolving sands, we open ourselves to change. If this is a shared approach, we tend to listen more and better. We are not thinking of making the next point. We can disagree without offending, and relish the flow of information from a place of curiosity, daubed with the light touch of humour. Therein, I reckon, rests a framework of a bridge.
The Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, makes a poignant observation:
‘Always remember that to argue, and win, is to break down the reality of the person you are arguing against. It is painful to lose your reality, so be kind, even if you are right.’
Beautifully put. I suspect many, like me, are repeat offenders. Murakami’s message, like Leunig’s cartoons, will hang on my wall – teachings of the highest order. So I believe!