Why, yes, that is a song I rather like. I often have music playing around the house – with a good speaker system (and lovely neighbours, who are easily as musical as I am and never seem to mind my noise), there’s really no good reason not to! So naturally, sometimes it will prompt me to think.
In this instance, about the difference between truth and belief, and the depth of belief, and the mistake of confusing belief with truth, and how easy that is. For example, I don’t think I generally confuse belief with truth, but that’s a horribly dangerous thing to think. After all, if I did, and I didn’t think so, how would I know? Particularly since, having looked up the available evidence on a given subject, I then tend to commit the conclusion to my belief faculty and forget how I got there. (I have a terrible memory.) As a result, I try to remember I could always be wrong, and to continually question the conclusions I can’t remember how I arrived at rather than doing what instinct tells me and defending them blindly.
Because that is, after all, what we generally do. In the wild, back when we lived in it, it’s much more efficient to come to instant conclusions in an emergency rather than dithering around trying to follow a train of thought. Shared instant conclusions foster social bonding and group cohesiveness, as well as ensuring the entire tribe will run the same way when danger threatens. Which was great, back when our biggest threats were large predators and the pointy sticks of the next tribe over.
These days, most of our biggest threats are internal. But we’re still wired up to unite in smallish groups and defend against external forces. We still have all those nifty shortcuts in our thinking that help us make snap decisions, only now they short-circuit the rational reasoning chains we need to make the considered choices our future as a species relies on.
Which brings us back to the title of the post. Children are, in general, particularly vulnerable to adopting beliefs; their reasoning faculties aren’t fully developed and they’re frequently taught to obey their various authority figures (parents, teachers, what-have-you). If they’re never taught to think rationally, it may never even occur to many of them to question the beliefs they were raised with as facts. It’s hard for anyone to admit they’re wrong about anything; how much harder to admit you were wrong about a fairly fundamental “truth” for your entire life? Subconsciously we all shy away from that one. (Of course, some kids do learn to think rationally all on their own, even with the odds horrifically stacked against them, and escape the various imprinted systems they’ve been primed to assume are true. But it can be horribly hard, and take a great many years.)
I was raised to question pretty much everything rather than accepting just about anything, regardless of who says it. It’s given me the best footing I can think of to continue to question everything and work out if it’s actually true or not, and even then, I have to be constantly on my guard.
One of the most fascinating characters I’ve played is a roleplay one, a man who goes by the name of Arden. (It’s not his real name, but he hasn’t used his real name since he was fifteen.) He has a natural talent for magic, to the point that he can’t really stop using it: he’s a born sorcerer. He also comes from a culture that believes, absolutely and implicitly, that magic is evil and corrupts the soul. Arden knows this on his deepest level. When his powers began to manifest, he fled his home, partially to protect his family from himself, partially because he was simply terrified. He’s been kicking around the criminal underworld of his home city ever since, doing whatever he needs to to survive – and knowing, all the time, that his very existence is wrong. That every breath he draws is a crime against the natural order, that everything he touches is tainted.
Arden is a good, honest, honourable man, a born paladin: if it hadn’t been for his magic, he would have grown up to be one of the country’s most loyal and truly dedicated knights, as close to incorruptible as it’s possible to be. Even now, he’s still that person. Believing he’s irredeemably evil, he causes the minimum amount of damage necessary to survive another day, even keeps the peace down in the shady dockside area where he lives: you don’t start roughing up the locals or you might just find yourself at the wrong end of his rapier. When increasingly bad things began happening in his city and he was drawn into it, he fought to protect it despite everything.
He makes the most of his life: as far as most people know, he’s a fairly cheerful and mostly easygoing pirate and smuggler. But deep down, that fundamental knowledge dictates his every action, and it’s endlessly fascinating to watch. He’ll do anything to survive because he has nothing left to lose; the day he dies whatever is left of him is bound for hell. He doesn’t even question it, it’s almost as though he can’t. Questioning it would be like questioning the colour of the sky: it’s perfectly obvious, you can look up and see it. Even though he wants to believe otherwise, he can’t. And it’s never even crossed his mind that maybe he could be wrong about the one thing that has shattered his life worse than anything else. Yes, Arden’s soul probably is rather damaged by this point, or at least carrying a heck of a lot of weight – but only because he’s done it to himself. He chooses to do wrong because he sees it as the lesser of the various evils available to him. As a fighter he’s efficient and fast, as a smuggler of illegal magical goods he keeps them as far from innocents as possible. And if only he didn’t believe so incredibly, fundamentally deeply that he was evil, he’d be a fine, upstanding pillar of society, working willingly to defend his homeland from any threat within or without, helping those around him to the limit of his ability.
I’ve played him for years, of both my life and his. Never once has it even crossed his mind that this most basic assumption could be utterly wrong, even though he desperately wants it to be. It’s hard to even represent in words how completely certain he is, more certain than he is that ground is solid, that the sun emits light, that gravity pulls him down. Find the most basic, unchallenged, uncontested assumption about your world: he’s that certain, if not even more so.
Or he was, but that final impossibility is a story for another time…