“There’s an objective reality and a subjective reality,” he contested adamantly. I heard in his voice his desire to convince, but his eyes revealed a plea: prove me wrong they said.
“Right. So how can you ever really know something?” I asked with a look of obfuscation.
“Well, that’s just it. You can’t.”
“Alright. Imagine you were sitting on the toilet dropping a deuce and I asked you then, are you certain you are crapping, would you be dubious?”
His eyes widened slightly, revealing his conscious mind endeavoring to anticipate where I was going with this and how to respond correctly.
He began talking about the transitory nature of knowing, because of things changing. “Of course things will change,” I replied. “Obviously your answer to that question won’t be the same after you’ve wiped your bum, but it doesn’t negate the fact that in that moment you’re certain it’s occurring.”
He looked perplexed; unsure of how to proceed after I created a situation where his previous response, “research what the philosophers say,” to my question of “how do you know something for sure?” was no longer valid.
I recall the first time my coach did that to me I had a similar sort of reaction. Replace the word philosophers with scientists and that was my response to that same question up until I figured out what intrinsic brilliance truly meant.
Reflecting now, I recall a previous session with another academic where she kept referring to completing her PhD so I asked her, “What does that say about you?”
“Well it proves that I’m competent and know what I’m talking about, obviously.”
“Uh huh. And it’s important to know what you’re talking about. I completely get that. Let’s imagine for a second that you weren’t so competent and didn’t have those initials behind your name to assert that you know what you’re talking about. What would that mean?”
She looked at me as her eyes began to well up. “Well…I guess…I…” Her voice trailed off, ashamed to admit what came to her when I asked that question.
Knowingly, I volunteered it for her: “It would mean you’re less valuable and therefore less lovable,” I responded matter-of-factly. She nodded in agreement.
Of course. How could it be anything other than that? It was the same sentiment that drove me to excel academically. Unconsciously, of course. I was operating under the presupposition that the level of prestige of my university corresponded to my value as human being; as though if I went to a university that wasn’t top tier I would somehow be less intelligent/worthwhile. I was offered a full scholarship to my local state school, but it was inconceivable to me to not go to a top tier university, even if it meant paying $140,000 USD.
Like many professors and researchers I meet, both of these people had taken on board the belief that ignorance is bliss and moreover, the fallacy of the converse. They wouldn’t give themselves permission to be joyful, lest they be perceived as being ignorant. In their hierarchy of values intelligence reigned paramount, and as such they’d rather be physically crippled than ignorant. I know this because once upon a time I felt the same way.
I used to hate holidays and would seethe internally when anyone expressed enjoyment of them, especially if I felt that they didn’t know the historical origin of the holiday. Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas are just a few examples of that. I had no patience for anyone who decorated a Christmas tree or exchanged presents when I knew that they weren’t actually Christian. “The Bible doesn’t say shit about chopping down perfectly good pine trees! They’re destroying the planet for a ridiculous holiday they don’t even understand,” I’d exclaim to my partner, whose bitterness and cynicism was rivaled only by mine.
I think about this now smiling, amused by how important it was to me then to find ways to be miserable. Unconsciously, of course.
I used to look down on those who just wanted to be happy, and by extension would find any excuse to celebrate life. I remained incredulous and disdainful that there was anything truly worth celebrating in this world ripe with suffering.
When I met Gabriella Salmon, she proposed to me a much more empowering belief: why not look at suffering as a whole instead of isolated parts? You can’t control anything other than your own quality of being, so by focusing on what everyone else is doing in the world you’re setting yourself up to feel powerless and inconsequential. When you look at suffering as a whole, you realise that you are a piece of that pie chart as well and that by being joyful in your own life, you are reducing suffering on this planet.
Intellectually, that made sense to me, so I tried it on for a while, and guess what? I loved it!
Today I’m so grateful for the happy-go-lucky people I once loathed and relegated to the imbecile basket. I see now they were teaching by example: filling the world with joy just by enjoying their own experience of life, only I wasn’t clever enough to see it then.
How fortunate we are that we transform throughout our lives; the things that we once knew to be true with absolute certainty, operating under the presuppositions we held at the time, look entirely different when viewed through alternative beliefs. It’s never too late to consciously choose empowering ones, you know…