At 24 John fell in love with the sect and has lived his devotion to it ever since, boldly championing his convictions in the face of resistance and even ridicule. He loved the rituals that demonstrated his devotion, and he practiced them with heartfelt zeal.
A year ago, at age 65 he had an out-of-body experience that was truly terrifying.
No, nothing paranormal, it was just a strange moment. Someone said something that sprung him out of his skin long enough to see himself as others see him, and to see that his cause was not only unsupported by growing evidence, it was immoral.
Suddenly he was trapped, pinned as if between two boulders dense with nothingness, unable to return to his former zeal, and yet also unable to just let go of it. It had been his life, his meaning, his purpose.
The lucky among us have lives filled with meaning. We are deeply dedicated to something–a marriage, career, political movement, sub-culture, ritual, avocation, philosophical belief or religious creed. Looking around uneasily though, we notice that some such causes are in direct conflict with each other, absolute in opposing ways. Political movements and religious creeds are the most obvious examples.
We watch with scorn as stubborn campaigners insist on the virtue of their cause in the face of incontrovertible evidence that it is folly or worse, is hurting people. Our scorn makes us think that if we were in these campaigners’ shoes, open-minded realists that we are, we would admit when the game is up. We’d face the music. We’d face it when the music is up in life’s game of musical chairs. If it turned out that there was no chair left for us, no place to sit with our precious causes cozy in our laps, we, unlike these stupidly stubborn people would have the moral bearing to admit we were wrong, that our bets were losing ones.
And we also guess that that’s unlikely to happen. Other people’s causes will no doubt prove wrong. Not ours.
Still, in the very unlikely case that your campaign should prove wrong, if you ever found yourself in John’s position, what would you do? What can you do? Compassion for others means you should abandon your cause. But what about compassion for yourself? A life devoted to a bet that proved wrong? Chances are good that we’re not much more realistic and open minded than the next guy. We’d be crushed the way John was.
Stubborn devotion to bad causes is a crime and a leading cause of death and suffering. No one is safe. No one is immune from becoming a victim of such crimes, nor from being a stubborn-minded perpetrator of one.
Recognizing that there’s a chance the causes we’re devoted to will prove to be lost ones, inappropriate, in error, dangerous, or immoral, what if we knew to plan ahead, to craft responsible retirement plans and health directives? Admitting that there’s a chance our life’s worldly mission will turn out wrong for the world, what if we really thought through how to manage our end games responsibly?
I think we should be prepared to retire our causes the way we retire our aged parents suffering the onset of dementia. We are kind to them. We show them love and respect even if their advice is not credible to us any more. We humor them respectfully, but only in those ways that cause no harm to others.
John spent a while laboring to dissociate himself from the cause. He scorned it viciously, making himself out as the innocent victim of a great deceit.
For a while he broke from his old allies and haunts. He missed them though, and eventually his scorn felt just too hollow to sustain. He started to hang out with a few of his old cause-mates, folks who had been as dedicated as he was, but had to admit now, as John had, that theirs had turned out to be a flawed cause.
One day his friend Dave suggested that they perform one of their old rituals. John was taken aback. He swore all of that off.
Dave said “What harm is there? We know it doesn’t mean what we thought it meant. Still, we did that ritual so often that it’s deep in our bones. Old as we are, it’ll never leave our bones.”
John and Dave and a few of the other ex-campaigners, they now get together and go through the motions. Says Dave, “You place your bets you take your chances. Alright, so we were wrong. We aren’t the first. I have compassion for that young man I once was. I see why I thought the cause was a good bet. And I have compassion for the old guy I’ve become. Yeah, I can learn some new tricks. It’s a hard enough trick learning to keep my yap shut, to cut out the proselytizing for this old flawed campaign of mine. You know, I loved feeling like I had the answer. I do miss that.”
John says, “I hate to admit it but I still believe in the cause 100% even though I know it’s not true. That’s a weird thing to say isn’t it? I believe it, even though I know it’s untrue. But I mean my body and heart and head and everything about me that was turned toward the cause-commitment like that doesn’t just stop. It doesn’t turn on a dime, at least not for someone my age. So I allow myself to indulge in the rituals. And no, I respect humankind too much to push my beliefs anymore. I stop short of turning my commitment into a worldly crusade like I used to. But a guy can still dream so long as his dreams don’t hurt anyone.”
John’s a hero of mine. I wish more people could do what he’s done. And if I end up like him, I aim to follow his example.
Some might say “He’s a wimp. Why if I were in his shoes, I’d drop my flawed cause entirely.”
To me that’s an inhuman standard. I don’t trust hardly any of us to drop a lost cause entirely. That’s why John is a hero. He’s brave enough to face reality, admit he’s wrong and to stop doing harm. And he’s compassionate enough to allow himself to cling a little. The way we humans inevitably do.
Maybe there would be less death and suffering if the social norm was to say “Fine I’m wrong about reality, but I still exercise my right within bounds to believe my delusion.” Maybe if devotees of flawed causes could retire them, saying as John did, “My gut still believes, though I know it’s untrue, and so I’ll practice but not impose” there would be room for both science and faith. Maybe if people could say, “Yeah my gut is sure global warming is a hoax, and yes I defer to the overwhelming scientific evidence that global warming is real,” we could get on with the practical work ahead without slighting our hearts and their heartfelt delusions.