This I Believe
A while back, I was driving my car and deeply engaged in a conversation with my teen-aged son. I had been going about my beliefs—I think something about proofs for the existence of God – something no doubt very profound (we often had these sorts of conversations in the car). I stopped when I thought I’d lost his attention. I asked him, “ Well, what do you believe?” He was quiet for a bit and then said, “I try not to have beliefs. I like having ideas instead.” If we had been going around a curve I might have missed it. It seemed like such a smart and wise thing to say. But I thought I’d better not get too excited—sometimes the wisest sounding words of a child aren’t what’s meant at all. So I asked him, “What do you mean, what’s the difference between an idea and a belief?” He thought a bit and replied, “Well, I guess I think of a belief as something you have that’s really hard to change. An idea is like a thought you want to try out. I like to think about things and know about stuff that’s interesting. And I change my mind a lot. Scientists do this too. They used to think there was only one universe; now, they think there might be an infinite number. I like to think about stuff like that.”
These days I think a lot about that conversation. I think there’s a lot of truth to what my son said: it is more interesting to think about stuff, to have ideas and try to figure things out. Beliefs skewer ideas, fixing them in place – they make you feel secure but don’t really take you anywhere.
I do know one thing I believe–I wish I didn’t, though now it’s too late. It’s the principle that, the most important duty of a parent is to give a child the tools to become successfully independent. For my son that day is now just around the corner. He’ll be off somewhere to college where he’ll be able to find out about all sorts of things and test many different ideas. It was I who used to say to him from the time he was very little and we were trying to think of something to do or of where we could find out more about something; I’d say, “Hey, I have an idea.” Soon, he repeated that phrase dozens of times. I encouraged him to have ideas and try to find out more about what he was interested in. Now I wish I hadn’t. If only I’d taught him to believe ideas like family is the most important thing, that home is where the heart is and there’s no place like it. I could even have made him aware of my fears about the world. Maybe if I’d taught him to believe in certainties, some fixed set of beliefs, he wouldn’t be leaving to explore the world and discover things on his own. But it’s too late now. Besides I guess I never could have taught him those things. I did my job and gave him the necessary tools to survive without his parents and to live in other worlds. I taught him something as simple as “I got an idea.”
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