There are things I believe I believe. For instance, I like to believe that everything — yes, everything — is a text and should enjoy multiplicity, ambiguity, play. This is what I love about reading William Burroughs, Nabokov, Perec, Nietzsche. It’s why I love complex films by PT Anderson, Cassavetes, Godard. It’s why the few friends I have are chock full of oddities. And it’s why I have trouble with professional networking: I relish complexity too much to stomach its single-mindedness. (Which is to say, it’s not a moral issue but a digestive one.)
Yet when it comes to romantic fidelity, I demand absolute truth. I tell myself: Who cares? If I’m enjoying myself — and don’t think my health is at risk — what difference does it make? But another part of me gets filled with fear, insecurity, and doubt as I find myself, Oedipus-like, conducting an interrogation that inevitably ends in my own demise. It’s humiliating — my behavior, that is, not my cuckolding.
What, then, is the relationship between belief and action? When do I bend my behavior to fit my beliefs and when do I adjust my beliefs to fit my behavior?
Well, the relationship between ideas and action need not be one-to-one (or even aspire to be). Take Kant’s notion of the beautiful in The Critique of Judgment. His concept of the beautiful slays me. But not because I believe it or find it an ideal to aspire to. No, I love this concept for its elaborate architecture, its bizarre mechanics, its confounding logic (Kant’s beautiful involves a free play that forever eludes concept but creates a proportionate agitation of the faculties in the process. It’s a veritable Rube Goldberg machine).
Thinking about it affords me delight. And that act of thinking is my life — or at least part of it. Ideas don’t have to be believed. They can be enjoyed. And that’s not to reduce them. Enjoyment is not necessarily frivolous. In fact, to me, true enjoyment is thorough and resonant. (That’s something I believe.)
Ideas, then, can be experiences that do not determine one’s life but go with one’s life, like dark chocolate or a dog. The matter of discrepancy between belief and life is rendered moot as the idea becomes a kind of life itself that one can enjoy in different ways (or not). It’s not a matter of hypocrisy or failure. It’s a matter of a kind of friendship between the idea and me. And, like any good friend, this idea can instruct and inform without having to dictate.
Certain events, certain decisions, certain actions push at my beliefs. I had a friend who did not believe in Western medicine, in antibiotics and such. She became seriously ill but didn’t want to be hospitalized with tubes and drugs plugged into her. She died. Of course, she may have died with the antibiotics and surgeries, as well. Or she may have submitted to them and been miserable. Or she may have been cured and led a long, prosperous life.
I do not enjoy much of Western medicine. They shot me so full of penicillin when I was a kid — back then, it was a needle in the ass — that now I’m allergic to all antibiotics. Which led me to traditional Chinese medicine, to acupuncture and herbs which have, for the most part, been very good to me.
And I feel like I get Chinese medicine and the whole energy thing. Believing, I believe, helps with the healing. Still, much of it eludes me. I had one Chinese doctor perform a long, thorough diagnostic exam at the end of which he said two things: One, he knew I’d had some profound trauma as a child (for what it’s worth, he was right). And, two, he told me my diagnosis in Chinese which, when translated, was a “mist over my liver.”
I love that. I love its poetry. Of course, it’s basically meaningless to me. But I like it and want to believe it .I’m sick. What do you have? Mist on my liver. Oh.
Utility and beauty are two modes of relating to ideas, neither of which involve belief. The interesting, however, is my favorite and my go to.
I sometimes wonder what will happen if I am diagnosed with some horrendous thing such as cancer. Will I avoid the horrors of chemo and radiation, opting for the relatively gentle poke of the acupuncturist’s needle, a bundle of stinky herbs, and some obscure poetry? Or, quaking before death’s imminent arrival, will I embrace Western medicine’s sterile belligerence? (Between you and me, I assume the latter. Still, I’m not sure which response I want to believe I’ll take. I see some kind of nobility in sticking with the needles and stanky herbs. But then I think: How is that noble?)
Or should I adjust my beliefs to be: I believe in what works until said working is more painful than it’s worth? I like the sound of that. It may not be the most committed of positions but perhaps that’s just as beliefs should be: circumstantial, protean, local. Principles have a certain currency in our culture but I, for one, am not sure I believe in the principle of principles.
I return to how I relate to Kant’s concept of the beautiful. It’s liberating to take belief and adherence off the table. To enjoy a more complex, and more generous, relationship to ideas — one that lets both the idea and my life go as they go rather than trying to make one fit the other.
Life and ideas are different. But they are not opposed. Nor do actions need the anchor and guide of ideas’ wisdom. And ideas don’t need the grounding of sweat to be vital and alive. Sometimes, action knows best. Sometimes, ideas know better. But usually it’s not one or the other. We go with ideas and ideas go with us.
What’s my point? I have many. But, mostly, it’s this: Rather than believing in ideas and judging my life by them, I want to make friends with ideas. I want to replace belief with friendship. That way I get all the benefits of edification without all the nagging.