Full disclosure: I don’t get it. The thrill of the chase, the rush of adrenaline, the excitement of action. My temperament has always been better suited to a vita contemplativa than to a life of Sturm und Drang. I would rather lead an uneventful life than an unconsidered one. Still, even those inclined towards contemplation cannot entirely escape an event or two. And when they cross your path, choices must be made. But how?
We’ve all felt at times like playthings of fate and chance, reluctant pellets in the great pinball machine of the universe. But life is more than the sum of the events that befall us. What makes you you and me me is how we process these occurrences, how we think and feel about them, how we respond.
A human life is a series of events and choices; you can’t always control the events, but you do have a say about what choices you make.
The Big Questions
In practice, some of our choices will be guided by impulse and happenstance. But we are not random beings: in a broader sense, there is consistency and continuity in how we steer our lives. There is a virtuous—or, depending on your point of view, vicious—circle in which a person’s character drives the choices they make and in which their choices define their character. How we choose to live depends in large part on how we answer some of life’s big questions. Who am I? What is the nature of reality? What communities do I belong to? How can I tell truth from falsehood? What are the right things to do?
There are those who would look for the answers to such questions in articles of faith: tenets or creeds that have been handed down from antiquity or established by authority. It would seem to be an attractive proposition. Why pursue the solutions to life’s challenges on your own and from scratch if you can get those answers from someone else and simply accept them on faith? It seems like a done deal: one path appears to offer ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt, while the other promises comfort, certainty and reassurance.
And yet I choose the former path.
The notion that certain ideas can claim to be universally and eternally valid without being subject to the burden of proof comes at a price: you are no longer allowed to change your mind about them. I prefer to embrace the notion that everything I know may turn out to be wrong and resolve to abandon any conviction if presented with compelling and persuasive evidence to the contrary. Articles of faith are nice—but to me, “articles of reason” are better.
If you choose to live by articles of reason, the entire contents of your brain come with a disclaimer, a caveat notice that says: I might be mistaken. My information could be incorrect or incomplete. My conclusions may be unwarranted or illogical. My choices could be misguided, my actions might just backfire.
In abandoning the view that certain things must be true, must be right, must be real, you enter into a mental landscape in which ideas have to pay a price of admission to be included in your world view. And that price is: evidence. There is no special treatment for ideas that happen to appeal to you because they are familiar or make you feel good. Instead, you embark upon a lifelong journey to discover what actually is true and right and real.
To be sure, sometimes you’ll change your mind as you go along. And at times you’ll have to accept that there are some things we simply don’t know yet. But most of the time, you will build upon what you know and deepen your understanding as you progress. At every step, rational thought is the light that guides the inquiry and reality is the touchstone that helps you tell fact from fancy. You partake in equal measure in the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants, and the humility of knowing that the collective wisdom of science, philosophy and art available to you is but a stepping stone: one moment in the great march of humanity that will eventually continue on without you.
Finding your way in life without instant “just add faith” answers isn’t always easy. Doubt is my steadfast travel companion and I am grateful for its company. I make no claims to any absolute truths; I have stumbled and erred and will surely do so again. But I have also learned a few valuable lessons along the way, and will use them as I continue to try to make sense of the many shades of gray that populate my mind.
I choose to go forward under the conviction that an unbiased exploration of our world and our humanity is a worthy endeavor, and that one can do worse than to be guided by a mental compass whose working parts include kindness, curiosity, humility, respect, generosity, a sense of humor, an open mind and, yes, articles of reason.
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