This I Believe

Tom - Buffalo, Wyoming
Entered on November 16, 2006
Age Group: 65+
  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

This I believe… I believe in back-scratching. Not the sort to which I revert when I’m alone– a handy tree, a propitious door frame, a sport section of the newspaper rolled and pointed over my shoulder to reach that spot no amount of stretching and contortion will access. There’s relief there, you bet! But, the “back-scratching” I’m talking about is: “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine.” I believe altruism was hard-wired into humans before our ancestors and our ancestor species ventured out of mother Africa. I believe way back then those who exhibited the traits of empathy and cooperation were promoted through natural selection. That’s not the whole story. I believe that human history runs on two paths: one on which backs are scratched; one on which backs are stabbed. We’re capable of both. But I believe that the preponderance of evidence comes down on the side of cooperation, and reciprocation as a means to survival. I believe that tolerance is a special case of “back-scratching.” I believe that if you say “tomaytos” and I say “tomahtos” we can get along swell. But I also believe that tolerance should not be naive. Not all differences are benign. Back-scratching and bullying are not in the same league. Enlightenment and ignorance don’t cooperate well. But, enlightenment requires modesty and a sense of humor, and ignorance does well to examine tradition and orthodoxy in a rational light. An enlightened bully is still a bully; a dogmatic yahoo– well, this is where a sense of humor is useful. But, tolerance can do a lot of sorting and overcome differences among people, cultures, traditions– a heck of a lot of “back-scratching” to be sure.

I believe that tolerance requires criteria. I believe that criteria require skepticism, and testing, and feedback.

I believe that “If you lie down with dogs you can get fleas.” I believe in tolerating the scratching dog but not in acquiring his vermin. I believe flea-powder is often a good thing used carefully and judiciously.

I believe reasoning by analogy has limited usefulness.

I believe that humans yearn, but mostly yearn to be on the path of empathy, cooperation, and altruism.– a reversion to some of our most primitive traits, unencumbered by acquisitiveness, explotation, and the lust for power.

I believe that we are doomed on a small planet, following Newton’s laws around our modest star, in a largely empty corner of a galaxy that is lost somewhere in the universe– doomed unless we get back to “back-scratching.” I believe the ministers of doom have usurped the show, in capitols and caucuses, at podia and pulpits, in board rooms and often even in classrooms.

But, beliefs often fly in the face of reason. So, I believe we have a shot at sneaking through the closing window of opportunity just before it slams shut– if we “…accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative; latch on to the affirmative…,” pump up the volume on tolerance, laughter, and healthy “back-scratching.”