Ironically, “Believe” was also the catchword prominently displayed on the side of the Macy’s building during the Thanksgiving Day parade. In this instance, “Believe” refers to an annual holiday campaign by the Mega Store that answers letters to Santa Claus sent to the store by making Charitable contributions (with the side effect, one assumes, of stimulating holiday shopping). “Believe” in this case is short for “If you believe hard enough, dreams can come true”. So what does Santa Claus have to do with armed gunmen?
More than any of us can afford to be comfortable with, I’m afraid.
Tempting as it is to distance ourselves from ideology-based killers, what keeps them going is what keeps us all going. Biology isn’t enough. In order to get through the day, any day, we need to impose our internal symbolism on the world around us. What we do, from the smallest acts (what we have for lunch) to the biggest (who we kiss goodnight, or don’t) happen within the structure of our meaning system. Our raw perceptions - what we see, hear, feel or taste - can’t hit our brains without setting off millions of resonances in the echo chambers of our stored symbols. Proust’s famous madeleine (a little taste of cake that triggered one the longest multi-volume novels in literary history) is only the tip of the iceberg. We need to make sense of our lives in order to live them.
When we can’t, when our symbols fail us, when we can no longer find or trust the meaning in what we do, we become depressed and unproductive and can wind up drunk or suicidal (or homicidal) if it doesn’t let up. The only way to snap out of it is to either find some new symbols or a way to reboot the old ones.
A real-world example would be a person who has spent years raising funds for a charitable organization for low pay but a high sense of personal satisfaction discovering that their organization is completely corrupt and that the public’s contributions are mainly going to enrich a few at the top. Aside from feeling like a fool, the loss of a sense of personal meaning, the thing that defined them as themselves (a “person who helps people”), would be devastating. Finding the energy and will to seek out a more “trustable” charity to work for would be difficult. The alternative might be to reject “Charity, Inc.” altogether and redefine themselves by putting their marketing skills at the service of a better paying Organization with fewer pretentions (Macy’s, for instance). Either way, the loss of personal identity would be difficult to get over.
The best protection for human beings from this kind of letdown is to find a belief system that can’t fail us, that can’t be disproven. Religion fills this gap for much of humanity, and has for a very long time. God, being invisible, is not subject to the usual rules of proof and is immune to the scientific method. An individual minister may steal church funds but God never does. The sense of “doing God’s will” can bring structure and order to your life and endow the smallest human act with meaning.
That sense of religious meaning evolved side by side with the development of the tribe as the locus and extension of individual identity and its evolution into the idea of “us” as a nation. And both religion and political systems developed in the context of our ongoing effort to impose our symbols onto raw nature for our survival, protection, comfort and, most of all, our sense of control. We want a house not a cave, goats in the pen not deer in the forest, with walls around the town to define our space and keep out potential threats. And, most of all, we want a sense of why we’re doing what we’re doing to help us cope with the very real troubles that biological life keeps throwing at us: diarrhea, arthritis, hurricanes, heartbreak, failure, debt and death at the end of the journey. There are two ways this can go.
- You decide that God wants us to “love our neighbors” and answer the unkindness the world throws at us by being kind to each other. This approach can express itself by respecting each other’s property, being generally nice to other people and donating to charities at Christmas time so those less fortunate can join in the Holiday festivities.
- You decide that God only wants you to love the neighbors who follow the same set of rules or belong to the same group that you do and draw your sense of meaning from protecting and promoting the “standards” God has set for humanity. This approach can express itself by a refusal to associate (and absolutely a refusal to marry) anyone from outside your group, speaking out and voting against anyone promoting activities you see as sinful and, in the extreme, killing 130 Parisians or shooting up an abortion clinic.
The same underlying motivator is behind both the best and worst in humanity. It starts the wars and sends medics out to save the wounded at the risk of their own lives. It builds the warm houses and it drops the bombs. It sings our children to sleep and it punishes them when they’re bad. Very few individuals or groups live in either one of these camps exclusively and certainly not all the time. There are elements of both in all of us.
Isis is an extreme. So is Mother Teresa. That they are both extremes of the same human process is something we need to understand and grapple with as we address the issues confronting our increasingly violent world.
To bring it back to where we started, belief is a sword that cuts both ways. We’ve got it, we need it, we can’t do without it.
It’s what we do with it that makes all the difference.
More to come.