Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Don't Believe You

   In the last few years I've tried to wipe the phrase "I believe" from my vocabulary, but it's not easy. Try it and see. I've tried to use "I think" or "I suspect" instead of "I believe." Before forming an opinion, I try as hard as I can to collect all the information, to look at all viewpoints. What I believe shouldn't matter. Something is either true or it isn’t. Before you throw me a parade, you may want to read this: I think it may be impossible to be totally objective. I'm starting to come to the conclusion that all of us are predisposed to certain viewpoints.  It's just in my nature to be more open-minded when it comes to religion, to be more stubborn when it comes to traditional forms of learning, and to run to the rescue as soon as I see someone bullied, despite the fact that I've been told time and time again to stay out of it. So how do we all get along if we are predisposed to certain types of thinking? Are we all wrong? Are we all right? Can we change?
    Let's take a lesson from well-crafted characters. Their beliefs and emotions are what drive a story. One character believes we should be free of religious persecution, another believes that we should be free of religion. One says guns are good, another says that peace is the only way, and is willing to kill anyone who disagrees. One character says God exists, another says prove it. In the novel The Beach, a character believed in a universe big enough for every possibility. As far as he was concerned, somewhere in the universe there are different versions of you reading different versions of this blog written by different versions of me. If the universe allows for such variation in reality, why do we, or much less our characters, bother fighting for anything?
    Beliefs are powerful. When Mao came to power in China, he believed religion was the reason for all suffering throughout history. In 1943, he enacted "freedom from religion" in the Chinese constitution.  He went to war against religion, not only slaughtering the people of Thailand, but sending the Dalai Lama into exile. Here's the bizarre part: Buddhism teaches non-attachment, especially when it comes to beliefs. Buddha never once mentioned God, or any divine creator for that matter, and taught that open-mindedness was the best way to connect to the universe. Wait a second…a dictator slaughtered open-minded people to rid the world of violent belief systems?  Doesn't make sense.
    Did I say that beliefs needed to make sense?
    Of course they don't. Remember, we live in a universe where anything is possible.
    Richard Dawkins believes that beliefs are like a virus, passed from one person to the next through a Darwinian-like process known as memetics. Whether or not the information passed is true doesn't seem to matter, it can still infect you and get more virulent as it passes from host to host. He believes that this was how religion started, and how it continues to "infect" society to this day. Researchers using fMRI have shown that people praying or meditating are actually activating healthy parts of the brain. Study after study shows that religious people are healthier, are less prone to depression, and are more charitable. Not much of a disease. So who is right?
    A character with certain beliefs will sometimes act in predictable ways, but the character that losses the fight, the girl, the competition, is the character that doesn't change. In story telling they call it character arc, when a character goes from selfish to selfless, from shy to outgoing, from closed to open. The only constant in the universe is change; therefore our characters should always question their deepest held beliefs about themselves, others, and the nature of the universe.  Had Luke Skywalker not gone from a farm boy to a Jedi who embraces the force, he would not have been able to blow up the Death Star.  Had Jerry Maguire not changed his belief that heart was more important than money in sports, he wouldn't have created the ultimate relationship with his wife and his most important client. In the reverse, had Alvy Singer been able to change, to not be an island onto himself, Annie Hall might not have left him for Paul Simon.   
    Our beliefs can make us easy targets to those who wish to manipulate us. Every character faces this dilemma. In the movie "The Fourth of July," Tom Cruises' character enlists in the army to go fight in Vietnam because he believes fighting for his country is the moral duty of every citizen. By the end of the movie, he came to the realization that he had allowed himself to be manipulated because of this rigid belief system. For some people, beliefs can't even be questioned, much less challenged, without them reacting violently. For others the scientific model seems like the most peaceful resolution--that by showing empirical data you can prove a belief. But what scientists don't understand is that some people won't change their minds even when given irrefutable evidence!  That's just the nature of belief. It can trump fact.
     At one time, Einstein's relativity was doubted. Now it's widely accepted, yet there are no more than a handful of people in the world who truly understand Einstein's equations. Why then do we all believe it? The same holds true for climate change. Why is there even an argument? Science should present its case and that should be the end of it. But a lot of people have formed their decisions based on what their political leaders have told them to believe, or on their emotions, or on popular perception. But believing in something doesn't make it true, and not believing in something doesn't make it false. Newton decided that gravity makes us stick to the planet. Would it matter if I didn't believe him? Would I suddenly float away? It's either true or it isn’t.
   As writers our characters are probably better off not being so open-minded.  The only thing we need to know as writers is that the only constant is change. Our character can have beliefs we don't share, can come to conclusions no normal person would, but if our characters don't change, the reader won’t care about them. They may agree with them about climate change, but agreeing with a character isn't the same as liking them or relating to their journey…or being interested in their plight. 
    When it comes to my personal beliefs, I live by these wise words:  The truth needs no defense, and given time the truth will prevail.
    When it comes to my characters, I go by these wise words: Conflict drives a story, and a character that doesn't change will be boring.     

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