Soon I will be celebrating the anniversary of a rather important date in my life – the time I dared to start thinking for myself. This, in turn, led to the most profound changes in my life. And to ever more impertinent questions initiating ever more fundamental changes in a long chain that has yet to end…
For one who was brought up with the most profound respect for all forms of authority, from the local policeman to the gardener, from my father to God, that was no mean thing. This whole questioning thing started when I was close to seventeen. Bedridden for some unremembered reason, I read a book pleading the Christian case for pacifism.
Now, a good question is like a very efficient drill. Once it has made a nice, clean, deep hole, you tell yourself it can probably make another one… and another one, and so on. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, ‘Woe unto that man who, at least once in his life, has not questioned everything.’
Over the years, I went through an accelerating – and sometimes excruciating – process of challenging accepted views which left no altar untouched, no stone unturned. It caused me to leave my childhood church, my country, my values, radically alter my political beliefs, even my profession. For, as I discovered in Africa, what my sociology professors in Europe had taught me as ‘scientific’ research methods, turned out to be a pair of extremely narrow, Cartesian coloured glasses offering a supremely shrivelled view of what my former professional tribe terms ‘social reality’.
Freeing the ‘mind-cuffs’ of dogma
Yet, however rough the ride, I was slowly and quite unbeknownst even to myself, developing that uniquely precious privilege: the courage to think for myself.
In a world where ideologies are gnawed by the relentless worm of time; where almost everything is changing, very rapidly and on a worldwide level, in a world where, to quote a leading scientist, ‘The scientific truth of today is the error of tomorrow’ and in the world where the multiplication and ever accelerating flow of information transforms the very concept of materially or scientifically established ‘facts’ into tenuous, temporary hypotheses; it is useful and most necessary to be able to think for oneself, untrammelled by the ‘mind-cuffs’ of narrow creed or hardened dogma.
No doubt you will often be alone on this initially steep path. Most people prefer the intellectually less arresting position of a hard-boiled egg at the bottom of a picnic basket, content to doze mentally in the shade. And you will but rarely find the sister-soul to share your highest visions – and so it should be. Nor should you attempt to share the unbroken horizons of your inner ocean with those who have dwelt a whole lifetime at the bottom of a well.
An unwavering truth
During all my years of searching, strangely enough, there was one belief system I did not even think of challenging till much later on in life, and that was the positivistic scientific belief that we can only discover ‘reality’ via experiments that can be duplicated, based on information given to us by the senses.
The day a profound and challenging book of metaphysics made me question that belief – well, all the precedent eruptions, intellectual earthquakes and nightlong anguished searchings appeared in comparison like Sunday School outings. Yet that questioning, once weathered, was also the one that brought with it lasting peace.
During all those years of questioning, doubting and wandering, one truth stood out, unwavering, unshaken (albeit at moments very dimmed) by the relentless tornadoes of questions, doubts, human mockery, death, hunger, famine and a thousand other gaunt spectres. And that truth was love. Love which I discovered to be the only reality in the universe and is at the same time its own cause, means and end.
For years, in Africa I saw children rummage in my garbage can. The ‘why such injustice?’ very quickly became, ‘Is my love deep and fervent enough to dedicate my whole life to building a world where the economy is motivated by service and cooperation rather than profit, greed and competition?’
In a world which appears plagued by ever-increasing uncertainty by the hollow chameleon of consumerism, where both prophets of despair and sanity speak of the world’s possible annihilation, in such a world, the highest form of the courage to think for oneself may well be the courage to love despite all appearances – to love more intelligently, more compassionately and finally – yes, more joyfully.
© Pierre Pradervand