Since hearing the news of my brain tumour, many people have asked me questions such as:
Let me open up and tell you about my beliefs. I am not doing so to try to convert you or convince you that I am right. I just want you to know what I think beliefs are. Some of my views may disappoint or even shock some of you. If this happens, I am sorry, but I need to have the integrity to expose some of my deep beliefs to you openly so that you know clearly how I understand these things. And forgive me - I am doing this more for my own clarity than for yours! It often helps to write things down.
I think that I live in a Universe on a little planet (Earth) in the “Goldilocks Zone”. In other words, the planet just happens to be not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold, and it has just the right combination of elements in it to lead to the evolution and support of life. As Goldilocks would have said, “It is just right”.
I am one of the products of a process of evolution that has taken place over millions of years, and I live with other people, animals and plants that have similarly evolved. On the whole, things seem to work pretty well, and while they go wrong from time to time, it is fun to be here.
As a result of the process of evolution, I have an organ called a brain that helps me live here successfully. It consists of about 100 billion nerve cells in a jelly-like matrix of supporting tissue and the whole thing is safely enclosed in my skull. It helps me to detect what is happening around me by gathering information from all my sense organs, and processes these inputs in an enormously complex structure of neurones, synapses, management modules, basal ganglia, automatic life support systems etc. The complexity is so vast that I can only understand its workings in a superficial way. Difficult as this is, I want to try to understand the mechanisms involved as best as I can and have modestly been studying this lump of vital jelly in my head for years. One of the books I have found particularly helpful is called “Mapping the Mind” by Rita Carter and Professor Christopher Frith. I have also found a very effective, simple resource developed by National Geographic, which allows you to explore the basic functions of the brain interactively. It is informative and fun. To have a look at the site, click HERE
What on earth does this have to do with beliefs?
The more I think about it, it seems that we build up a perception of the “reality” of the world as a separate representation, like a theatre in one’s head, driven by very powerful virtual reality software. Indeed, modern brain scanning techniques suggest that this is what is actually happening. Because of the way the brain has evolved to protect one from danger and to ensure procreation, the information that is fed into the theatre of the mind is filtered according to prearranged rules. Each of us sees the representation of reality differently. Another way of looking at the filtering process is to think of each of us wearing our own set of prescription spectacles that show us the world in a way that we can uniquely understand best. This is useful but it can cause problems. These filters are our beliefs. That’s what I believe anyway!
Where do these beliefs come from? Some of them seem to be hard-wired into the brain. If I see a large animal with sharp teeth charging me, roaring loudly, a filter switches on and automatically presents a fully interpreted representation in my theatre of the mind together with fear, immediate strategies for action and other survival overtones. Other beliefs are taught to us by our parents either consciously or through unconscious behaviour. Still other beliefs are formally taught through tradition, school, the workplace, the television set in the lounge, Church, friends, and so on. The important thing is that most of our beliefs are acquired without our conscious knowledge and often without being examined and validated against reality. I believe that this is fundamentally important. Our beliefs affect our behaviour. Often our behaviour is difficult to understand, and the reason is that it is often based on unexamined beliefs.
I have tried to the best of my ability to identify some of my beliefs and have found it very difficult. Some are probably illogical, yet I am unable to let go of them. For example, I believe that I am an inferior human being with a tendency to fail at everything I do. As an overall belief, this is unhelpful, yet I struggle to break free from it. Clearly, it must be serving some purpose, as perverse as it seems. The point is that beliefs can be extraordinarily difficult to change, in my opinion. Just listen to two politicians trying to convince each other that one is right and the other is wrong. . .
I think that one can use three main approaches to trying to understand how things work and how one relates to the world and the universe. One way is to accept what one has been taught by parents, church, Bible and other people and base one’s understanding and behaviour on this. This is called Faith. Another way is to think about things using techniques like logic, reasoning and agument. This is philosophy. A third way is to examine rigorously what one actually observes aound one, question it, experiment with it, seek different points of view and try to evolve predictive strategies based on one’s conclusions. Above all, the third method requires hard work, accurate observation, absolute honesty and constant revision. One needs to be open to re-examine new evidence all the time and accept that one may need to change one’s mind if it is justified by the facts. This method is called science. And this is the method that I try to use. It is often frustrating and difficult, but I really think it works. What I have said is deliberately simple, perhaps even naive. I don’t think it needs to be made more complex than this. Some of the main influences that have convinced me about this general approach are the wonderul books written by Richard Feynman, the brilliant theoretical physicist, and Richard Dawkins, a man with one of the finest, clearest minds around today. My views and beliefs are still a work in progress, and I think that is the way it should be.
I am not a religious person. To me, that means I am unable to accept, like a child, an unquestioning faith in a man made system passed on in documents like the Bible or the Qur’an that were written by a series of old men long ago, translated into many languages, copied (sometimes inaccurately) by scribes and published in their millions for general human consumption. I’m sorry if this sounds terribly patronising. I don’t intend it to be so, but I can’t think of different words to use. Sorry. The massive power inherent in man made religious systems is very frequently used by unwise, unthinking people to justify terrible behaviour, like crusades, wars, killing, intolerance and indiscriminate acts of violence, all in the name of religion.
If you have faith, I am not condemning you. Far from it. I have seen wonderful people - including my own beloved wife and children - embracing a deep faith that gives them a strength far beyond anything I have. It is truly wonderful. The evidence shows that they are wise enough and strong enough to handle this power. In my present position I am not. To those of you, my dear friends, who have offered the generosity of your prayers in my difficult time, I accept your gift with great humility and love. Yes, I can feel the love, I can feel your care. I do not understand it, but I love you for it and I accept your gift with open hands and heart.
I believe in modern, mainstream medicine as the most rational and sensible form of treatment of disease. The other side of this is that I do not believe in the hundreds of quack remedies that are springing up everywhere in order to generate money for unqualified practitioners. Things like homeopathy, osteopathy, herbalism, spiritual healing and so on have no place in my belief system. I have researched this carefully, and can recommend at least one web resource called Quackwatch which reliably and scientifically debunks medical nonsense. iIf you click on the highlighted word in the line above you will go straight there.
I believe in forgiveness and have put this into effect today. While I was employed, successfully building a professional career, I uncovered an instance of disgraceful cheating being perpetrated by my boss. I had a long and detailed discussion with him about it and expressed my outrage at his dishonesty, weakness and hypocracy, especially as he loudly and publicly bellowed out to everyone about his high Chritian principles and that he was achieving his material successes in the organisation in the name of Jesus Christ. He was proud of his official and high ranking position in the Anglican Church! He told me that he would destroy my career. A few years later, he was promoted to a very senior position in the large financial organisation in which I had worked all my life. One memorable day he took a single, deliberate, uncompromising and brutal decision that achieved the destruction of my career he had promised. It changed my life completely and I have never been able to forgive him until today. Today I forgive him for his action. I let it go. He no longer has any power over me.
What do I think about race, racism, affirmative action? Race is a very simple one to deal with because it rests on my other major belief systems. Humans have evolved into different races, as have other animals and insects. Dawkins covers this eloquently and scientifically in “the grasshopper’s tale” in one of his books, “The Ancestor’s tale”. When one examines the scientific facts of race at the level of DNA, no person can have any grounds to believe that racial background provides a basis for judging the superiority of one over the other. For practical purposes, I try to ignore race completely when making value judgements or evaluations of people. It is irrelevant and unimportant. If I have to make evaluations or value judgements I simply look at excellence. Sounds simple, but, of course it isn’t. What if one racial group was disadvantaged in the past? (and we in South Africa know all about that). That will affect excellence. So now how does one deal with it? Does one apply some sort of affirmative action policy to try to rectify the problem? Here’s where I just become realistic, because realism has meaning for me. Affirmative action is a reality as a social engineering strategy. It is either fair or unfair, depending from which side of the disadvantage line you view it. Even if I sometimes feel the pain of unfairness, I simply accept it. I firmly believe that life is not based on anything remotely like fairness. If anything, it is based on the ability to survive competition and natural disasters. That is he very basis of the process of evolution. Life happens, and one must handle it. Is it fair that I have a malignant brain tumour in my head? Whether it is fair or not is the wrong question. The right question is how I am going to handle the reality.
How well are we being led into a realistic future by the present South African Government? To me it is obvious that our political leaders are weak, and out of touch with reality. They lack a clear vision that is in line with the needs of the people, they lack wisdom, and they display a terrifying inability to plan effectively for the future. It is a great disappointment to me that the poor majority in South Africa remain poor and that only a few politically favoured individuals in governemnt are becoming powerful and affluent at the expense of the masses who keep them in power. It is scandallous, in fact. This is not a vision of the South Africa that I was so excited about when the previous, overtly evil government (that I never supported) handed over power. It has not worked out the way I hoped. So what am I going to do about it? It comes back to reality again for me. I will carry on as long as I can in my endeavours to pass on my own expertise and knowledge in any way I can. If people want to help, we will achieve synergy. If they don’t want to help, I will keep trying. In the meantime, I will apply my efforts to the poor level of corrupt government in South Africa through the channels of democracy. If our political leaders perform well, and in the interests of the masses of hard working, decent people, I will vote for them. If they fail to embrace their responsibilities and laugh off their accountability, I will vote against them. And, I will express my views in the process.
These are the beliefs I have constructed to replace the dysfunctional beliefs that were described in my diary note posted on 13 February, 2008. The discarded beliefs did not satisfy all four criteria for realistic, adaptive, practical beliefs. To see the original dysfunctional beliefs, click here to go to the diary note in which they appeared.
These reconstructed beliefs in green below now all satisfy my 4 criteria for realistic, adaptive, practical beliefs, namely,
- They are factually and scientifically based on observable reality and are realistically achievable.
- They positively serve my unique personal needs
- They positively contribute towards my adaptation to reality
- They positively contribute towards my physical and mental health
I have identified people I know whose behaviour shows that they probably share these beliefs so that I can model their behaviour.
I have started a program to consistently reinforce these beliefs by repetition and reward over an initial period of 2 months in order to incorporate them as habits in my life. After the 2 month period, I should be confident in using them and they should start being used automatically as habits. I will review the beliefs regularly in future on a planned basis.
Here is the list of reconstructed beliefs:
- I like who I am and take a delight in being a unique, authentic person. There is no need at all to make excuses or apologies for any of my beliefs. I have thought about my beliefs, examined them and fully embrace them. I do not need to defend them with my life. I accept them easily, without shame or doubt.
- I know that I am liked and accepted by other people. I am joyful for this good fortune. I like people who accept me the way I am.
- I accept other people the way they are and have no need to try to change anyone or anyone’s beliefs.
- I know I have the ability to show people how to examine their beliefs and therefore change them if they want to. I am happy to provide the tools, but feel no need to make them change.
- I trust people when I know them.
- I have very good judgement and rely on it.
- My life has been a success. I am proud of my achievements. I have a tendency to succeed at everything I do.
- I am driven to success and happiness through childlike fun, playing, curiosity, excitement, discovery and research. I am not afraid of failure. If I do not succeed immediately, I use humour and fun to handle the temporary setback. A setback is nothing more than an opportunity to try a new, exciting direction. I am not driven by fear of failure, but by the passionate desire to achieve the outcomes I have chosen. There must always be fun and excitement in the process.
- My father and mother were real people. I remember their positive features with great love. They gave me gifts like music, humour, fun, tenacity, communication skills and many more. I love them for their positive characteristics and have forgiven their mistakes.
- I take responsibility for myself and my actions. I do not take responsibility for things that are not in my control.
- I have an internal locus of control. In other words, I am in control of, and take responsibility for my destiny. There is not some mysterious force outside of me that controls me. I am in control of myself and I take responsibility for it.
- I will try to be good, honest, kind and open with other people. I will share myself freely.
- I do not relate to people through confrontation. I relate to people through acceptance of who they are, and will always listen in order to understand them before criticizing or judging them
- Time is important to me. I respect other people’s time and am therefore punctual. When learning, or performing a project I will now take plenty of time to do what needs to be done thoroughly and in the total absence of fear that I have too much to do. I will now take my time and relax in order to concentrate on the task. It is far better to get through fewer tasks by spending more time on those that are tackled than getting through more tasks quickly and ineffectively. Those that are done thoroughly will be remembered better (if learning was involved), be better finished, and be more durable and reliable. So, take your time! It is always worth it.
- Of course, I always have the right to say No or to decline to take part in an activity, debate or action of any sort. I also have the right not to give reasons for deciding to say No. It is not a sign of weakness to say no.
I will stop here although there is a great temptation to go on with a long and comprehensive list of my other beliefs.