I was raised in the Catholic Church. I went to Catholic school. Like most young children I believed what I told to believe. Until I didn’t any more. As I grew older I doubted the stories I was told that included things that were impossible. I wasn’t surrounded by people who modeled the utility of faith particularly well. They knew the rules. But I didn’t really like rules that didn’t make sense. So I wandered away from it. I stopped believing.
It was more than that though. I didn’t just stop believing, I believed that people who did believe weren’t particularly bright. They were gullible. I knew better. And so I viewed the institutions that peddled their faith to the unimpressive masses as problematic. They were taking advantage of people. And the people were all worse off for it.
From time to time I would wander into someone that I respected who had a deep sense of faith. I couldn’t square it. So I kind of just filed it away for something to be explored later.
I’m in my 40’s now. And I’m an active member of my local church. I didn’t have a lightning bolt moment on the road to Damascus or anything as dramatic or interesting as that. Instead, sometime after I left the military and lost my mother to ALS and my middle son was diagnosed with life-long cognitive impairment and autism, I found comfort in the community. And some peace in knowing that we’re drawn together by some common beliefs. More specifically, two beautiful ones. To love your neighbor. And to understand that there are powers of the universe beyond my reach of comprehension that keep me from controlling the things I once thought I controlled. Without those foundational thoughts, for me, life doesn’t make much sense any more.
My 20 year old self would look at me and make the mistake that I knew and understood less about the world than I did. That I’d taken the “blue pill” of blissful ignorance. While my clear eyed younger self took the “red pill” of unpleasant truth.
That belief misses a critical truth though. That the world is a hard place to live in. And if we don’t believe a few unbelievable things together, we’re going to eat each other.
My old red pill was a blue pill. Or was it the other way around?
There are no pills. And there is no binary pattern to the useful and less useful belief systems. If you take the world head on and bathe only in the unpleasant truths of the world, then you’re denying yourself some of the most powerful aspects of the human experience. That we have each other in common, and this commonality manifests itself sometimes in blissful ignorance. And there is value in that.
It’s damn hard to be cynical about everything all the time. It’s corrosive individually and institutionally and it breaks down our ability to cooperate.
America is in the throes of red pill overdose right now. We concurrently believe that the inconvenient truth of our history is too damning to have value and the grim realism of our future is too horrible to continue on. And that whatever we believe about ourselves and the world we live in is a lie. No one can depend on anything or anyone. And reasonable people see the outcomes of important things like democracy or economic systems or the rule of law as rigged lies to forward the interests of those who would take advantage of us. The outcome is a thin and fragmented people clinging on to base tribal forces of politics and identity.
We need to believe something about ourselves again. We need to believe in Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature.” Not because we know it’s true. Because if we don’t, we’ve got no future. No one believed Lincoln when he said that in 1861. His inauguration speech was a failure. And what came after was a murderous lesson in the failure of civic institutions and government from which we still haven’t fully recovered.
Lincoln’s words still hang in the air though; suspended in naïve aspiration. Perhaps to be pulled down one day when we need them. There is something wrong with every complex idea. We’ve got to spend more time on what’s right with them. Now seems like a good time. Let optimism have its turn.