How Do You Know You're Right?
I love playing soccer. Part of what I love about it is that it’s easy to see that I have a lot learn. I know that no matter how good I get, I’ll always make mistakes, because that’s part of learning. That’s part of being human.
We see only in a mirror dimly, and it’s probably just me, but when I look and see the sheer number of different belief systems in the world I can’t help but feel small. We are each SO different and have such extraordinarily diverse experiences; I wonder that we can even talk to each other.
We all grasp at truth. We all want something to hold on to. And maybe I’m weird, because I constantly feel a little lost with a lot to learn. Do you ever doubt that you’ll ever be able to fully understand the world? That’s my life.
What makes all of this uncertainty compounded is that we still have to live life! Time doesn’t just stop. We all involuntarily separate actions and motivations, spreading them out like jam on the lightly browned toast of our moral continuum’s. Even more than that, our experience tells us that the better each of our values line up with one another, the more meaningful our connections can be.
It’s pretty hard to have ceremonial communion with a starfish. It relatively easy to have a neighborhood barbecue.
Does it ever get you how no one ever defines good? People say that they have good connections, good food, good beaches, but what does good mean? From an existential perspective, its meaning could be entirely derived by the entities that perceive it—or some such nonsense. But, I’m not grasping at truth. I’m reaching for common ground. Are people like me, who don’t know what good means, condemned to be lost, hopelessly isolated from each-other by oceans of indifference?
Of course not! We know we can love and accept each-other without agreeing. The ground that we stand on to love and reason, to hope and dream, to build and collaborate—is solely the human experience. This has been the triumph and failure of humanity for all of recorded history. This isn’t new or novel, this is evident in all circles and walks of life. Our belief in our similarity is why we believe in truth. It is built in to the core of our being.
If we can find value in our similarities, what can we say about our differences? The question “Is there anyone else like me?” dominates my thoughts some nights. I like to imagine what would happen if we let the fact that we are all different, bind us together. We are all the same, in that we are each unique. Doesn’t this allow us to understand what it is like to experience something differently from the rest?
I totaled a car once because I looked down to turn off the song “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5. Ever since then I’ve hated that song. But because everyone in my family likes to listen (and dance) to Maroon 5, I play along sometimes. My experience is drastically different from theirs, I would be completely isolated by it, but I’m able to empathize with them and be part of the most valuable thing in human existence, connection.
Through shared experience and empathy, sometimes I feel like I can have a shared understanding of good means. But always in the back of my mind I’m thinking,
Where there is light, there must be contrast. If there is good there must be a bad or, at the very least, a less good.
If our good is based on shared values and the human experience then could our bad be the very things that attack that? Actions that remove from the net-positive of others’ experiences. Actions that end human lives, and destroy empathy.
A few names come to mind when I think about what bad means. Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, the kids who bullied me in middle school. This brings up lots of questions and emotions for me,
What about people who are wrong? What about the people who are so wrong they are hurting others?
It’s easy to want to optimize, to “hate the haters”. Whether it’s just some “sick burn” typed over the internet, or cruelly gunning down parishioners, there is no math for this. There is no method for adding, subtracting, or comparing peoples lives and well-being. We can only value the humanity in each-other.
I know most people would disagree, but I think, regardless of disparities between values, if we can value the uniqueness and uncertainty of the world in others’ eyes, and exercise empathy, we have the building blocks of a yet great society.
Even the most damaging and incorrect individuals that I have ever met can still agree that their “reality”, their “truth”, doesn’t need protection, people do. I think this cuts to the heart of what humanism is about; it’s about protecting and valuing human beings over the tyranny of truth. Implementations of this idea may be as widely varied as the humans on this planet, but we have a similar goal: To promote human decency and well-being.
So how do you know that you’re right? If you’re not certain already, you probably never will be. But you don’t have to know you’re right to love and be loved by those around you. And if that’s the case, maybe this isn’t the right question.