Are We Our Beliefs?

It was perhaps 11:00 at night.  Late spring, and I was driving down a country road in Illinois.  This was seventeen years ago.  I think I remember the circumstances so clearly today because my mind has wondered since then what, if anything, prompted the thoughts I had that night.  Was it anything in the circumstances?

Driving along, I abruptly recognized that it no longer mattered to me whether god existed.  Moreover, I felt it had not mattered to me for a while.   But oddly enough, I couldn’t think of any reasons why it no longer mattered to me whether god existed.

I also recognized I felt the same way about heaven and hell.   It no longer mattered to me whether or not they existed, and hadn’t for some time, yet I couldn’t think of any reasons why it no longer mattered.

I wasn’t arriving at these thoughts by any effort of reasoning that I was aware of.  Instead, they were surfacing as “givens”.  In a way, it was more like I was simply seeing my thoughts than I was thinking them.

Until that night,  I had sometimes believed in a god and sometimes not.  But whether I believed or not, it had always been important to me whether I believed or not.

That is, it had always been a part of my self-identity, of my sense of who I was, and thus important to me.

So, when I believed in a god, I thought of myself as someone who believes in a god, and I thought that was something important about me.  And likewise, when I didn’t believe in a god, I thought of myself as someone who didn’t believe in a god, and I thought that was important about me.  Yet, that night, I saw none of that was me.  And so, something that had been important to my self-identity — something that had once been me — simply slipped away as if it had never once been a part of me.

It strikes me as weird that we can think what we believe is us, that we can identify self with belief.

For one thing, to do so makes the belief a possession.  And, although a belief is intangible, it can in every psychological sense be just as much of a possession as that large, very tangible and even cumbersome pumpkin that you recently scooped out, carved, and then stuck on your front porch.

Are we really our beliefs, though?  Yes, we can think what we believe is us, but is it really us?

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10 thoughts on “Are We Our Beliefs?

  1. To me it suggests that we simply evolve as people along with our beliefs. (even if you define yourself by lack of belief) Ideally, we are not static, but ever seeking and changing as we learn more about ourselves and the world around us.

  2. My dear Ms. Capach, you are of course profoundly correct that we are far from static. At least, I must agree with you so far as I can see.

    I think, however, that beliefs (along with any other possessions) are employed to provide us with a sort of stability. For example: We might at 60 cling to the same beliefs we had at 16, and because we identify our self with those beliefs, we would be able to see our self as stable, static and unchanging.

    There are ways in which that might be reassuring. But I wonder whether it doesn’t create an illusion of greater stability and durability than actually exists?

    As for myself, I am of the ridiculous opinion that the self is so far from being a static thing that it is actually a process and not a fixed thing at all. I know that might sound absurd. But in my defense I will lie and say that I’ve been hanging out with too many sailors. Sailors, as you know, live upon a moving, unfixed surface and consequently know full well the self is a process, a moving process and a flux. At least, that’s my story, Wolf, and I’m sticking to it! 😀

  3. I agree, not only are we prone to cling to old ideas, we are prone to return to them after once giving them up in our early adult years. It seems that for many of us the journey often loops back on itself.

    And since many of my ancestors were semi-nomadic I can sympathize and say that I tend to share your view of the self as a process.

  4. Sometimes I envy you your heritage, Wolf. It seems that on certain spiritual matters, it gives you a bit of a head start, so to speak.

    Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.
    ~ John Muir

    The times in my life when I’ve lived out of doors, I’ve gotten a sense of what I think Muir is talking about there.

  5. Ah well, my heritage is as much German and Sicilian as anything… I just choose to listen to some parts of my heritage more than others. 😉

    I think that living close to nature will have that effect, it can be a profound experience. I’m eternally grateful to my parents for giving me a childhood filled with free exploration of nature.

  6. I certainly agree with you that living close to nature can be a profound experience. And I think you need not even get that close for nature to have rather profound impact on you.

    For instance: I think if someone were to consistently over time spend his or her late afternoon/evenings out of doors, by a lake or woods, instead of inside watching TV, then I think just that much exposure to nature could have a remarkable effect on their well being and perhaps on their perspective and sense of proportion.

    But perhaps the key here is to get away from the TV. The rhythms of television are antithetical to the rhythms of nature.

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