THE BLOG

How Our Beliefs Shape Our Actions in the World

03/02/2011 09:05 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The other day a friend told me a peculiar phenomenon: take your birthyear (e.g., 1955=55) and add it to your age (you will be this year, eg. 56); they will always add up to 111. My friends tried it and it was true. I knew the math behind it was simple, but my friend's interpretation was on a very different plane: "See how we are all interconnected -- we are all 111." She's a very spiritual and beautiful person -- fun-loving, an artist and world traveler, completely compassionate and giving in life. If everyone shared her passion for life and kindness the world would be a kinder place. On the other hand, she's not that grounded in science and sometimes takes "rational facts" as magical or spiritual.

I sent her the explanation for the 111 later in the day by e-mail. It's pretty simple, as my son pointed out: your birth year is the number of years one lived in last century, and birth age is the number of one's years since then; sum is always 100, plus whatever year we are in this century -- 2011 or 111; next year it will be 112, etc. Part of my wanting to dispel her belief was to protect her from the cynics of the world who would discount all she said because of this sort of interpretation.

But then I started to think about her interpretation versus mine, and the role of magical or mythical thinking versus science. As a scientist, I've always thought science is best, but is it always the case? Her enthusiasm and interpretation over "111" or other magical and mythical thinking was extremely positive: Look at our similarities and interconnectedness. A ripple effect of that understanding would yield greater tolerance, equality and compassion among us. It became clearer to me that how we relate to our "beliefs" may be more important than the belief or knowledge itself.

Joseph Campbell wrote at great length about the power of mythology. I was beginning to see how our beliefs -- our mythologies -- provide us with a means of understanding the unknown (in my friend's case, this odd phenomenon of 111). If what we believe generates compassion, love, and helpful actions, perhaps those beliefs are beneficial to oneself and humanity at large. If our beliefs generate intolerance, inequality and hatred, perhaps those are ones you may want to jettison. But we need to examine how we relate to our beliefs, maybe more than dispelling of them as fact or fiction.

What if we each investigate our "beliefs" -- whether they be scientific in origin or not -- to see which generate positive actions of love, compassion and helpful acts, and which generate unhelpful actions of intolerance, inequality and hatred? Through such study we might then learn to let go of the latter and allow the former to flourish, even if they are not grounded in science.

We need not all accept the "same reality" for the world, but lets work toward finding ones that generate worlds of peace, equality, love and compassion.

This approach to understanding your relationship to beliefs is summed up in the idiom, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder," or, as Benjamin Franklin (1741) said it, "Beauty, like supreme dominion, is but supported by opinion," or, as David Hume said it, "Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them" (1742). What is your relationship to your beliefs? Beauty or Not?