Don’t believe

The older I get, the more I find myself trying to remember what it was like to be young. I wonder, “How would my life be different if I had known X? Would experiencing Y have profoundly altered my path? Back before I assumed the burden of Z, how did I interpret the world and my place within it?” These are the sort of questions that are, not so much fun, but meaningful to ask.

Another concerns parenthood: “What learnings would it be most important to pass on to my children, not just in general, but regarding specific domains of a life?” Some examples of domains include relationships, health, happiness, philosophy and learning. Of course, many possible answers spring to mind. But I want to tell you about one in particular, and it concerns cognition, how we think.

One of the things that I’m most grateful to my father for is reading. Him sat there, reading a book, is one of the foundational memories of my childhood. And I wish to set the same example for my children, should I have them. I would love them, first, to see, and second, to experience for themselves, the incomparable joy that comes from reading. But more than that, I would love to be able to communicate to them how to read. Or more specifically, how not to.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a bit of sucker, a soft sell if it seems that a person knows what they’re talking about. My instinct is to trust first and doubt later—often when it’s too late. Because of this, I have a tendency to believe what I read; books are written by authors after all, authorities on their chosen subject. Thus, reading critically—regarding and disregarding according to stringent criteria and judgements determined by the faculties of my own mind—is not a skill that comes easily. 

It took me a long time to realise this, and when I did, I had to translate it into a directive, a heuristic, and remind myself of it periodically. I phrased it like so: Don’t believe everything you read, and don’t believe everything you think. This is the domain-specific advice I would love to pass on, implicitly or explicitly, to my children, and I suppose, to everyone. Too often and too easily, we align our beliefs with those propagated by sources and figures we consider authoritative. Don’t believe everything you read. And what voice holds more authority over ourselves than our own? Don’t believe everything you think.

The above, double-sided directive is derived from an awareness of the fallibility of the human mind. It is crafted from the knowledge that, more than we care to admit, we have no idea what the truth is, what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad, what matters, what doesn’t and who we can and cannot trust.