Friday, 28 October 2016

belief, and a pre-lived leper.

There is a lot more to the power of a word than its dictionary meaning. We may need to let go of words and verbal concepts at times, for example in meditation, but other than that, words are where we live, and our language/s shape our concepts, feelings, our view of the world. Many words do so from a long way back.

Take 'belief," for example. It's not an easy word sometimes. Do you believe in Jehova/Allah/God? That Jesus was God's son?  Do you agree with, sympathise with, accept a set of beliefs? Differing beliefs about The Big Stuff (God and all) can run a rift through a family.

There are two groups of words, as is common in modern English, around the concept of belief. There are those from the Latin "credo," I believe, eg incredible, credulous. 

Let's leave those to one side for now; more of the time, we use words such as belief, believe. They come from an Old English root "leof," related to "lufu," love.

"Leof" is used in the first English poem "Beowulf" to mean pleasant, dear, beloved."Lief" came to mean willing, something we liked or loved to do.

In Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, the Old Man who wants his  life to end bangs his staff on the ground and says "Leever Mooder, leet me in!" "Dear Mother, let me in!" He's ready for his grave.

So in its very make-up, drawn up from its roots, "belief" involved something dear to us, something we love, something or someone much valued. 

Not merely something our intellects allow us to agree with.

And yet we argue over beliefs, we analyse people's beliefs, we bring the bright and narrow beam of reason to shine on them. Someone said to me the other day that belief isn't a matter of rational analysis, it's a matter of what you commit to - because it is lief to you. It suits you, it's dear to you, you like to do it.

Here's the paradox in this approach, though: it opens the door to, - well, a load of bollocks, you might say, seen from the middle-of-the-road, sensible world view most of us like to think we have.

A recent Doonesbury cartoon neatly skewers the wildly improbable narcissism sometimes to be found in this age of believe-what-you-like. 

A young woman is telling her partner that in previous lives she has been a middle-kingdom midwife, a Babylonian astronomer, a holy Roman empress, a leper in fin-de-si├Ęcle Marrakesh. She's finally realised that what these past lives had in common, what "connected them to the divine spark of my higher self," was that each of them always tried to look her best. Her partner's reply? "That's one plucky leper."

It's often not too difficult to puncture for ourselves (though not for the devout)  the beliefs of others by using reasoned argument or just a laconic putdown. But does it matter what other people believe, if they would as lief have it so? If the belief is useful to them and harmless to the rest of us?

It seems to me that it's what people do with and because of their beliefs that matters. Someone said ages ago, "Your freedom of thought and action stops an inch from the end of my nose." Or should do so, whatever you believe.

Anyone close to the young lady who "knew" she had once been a Babylonian astronomer and a fashion-conscious Morrocan leper might worry about her well-being - I doubt many of us would want to spend too long with someone who talked such tosh - but it would probably be harmless for the rest of us. 

Some beliefs may be seen as more of a risk to unbelievers than others, of course, and more likely to topple over into destructive action, especially when religious belief becomes intertwined with politics, territorial struggles and visions of power.

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