01/04/2012 09:12 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2012

The End of the Beginning

Ah, Jan. 1, the new beginning and a chance to finally get it right this year. Or is it?

Perhaps it is the end of the beginning. When we began as a nation, we were full of hope and idealism. We believed that every person could thrive and prosper if they worked hard and learned from their past mistakes.

Today, can we honestly say we believe that hard work will take us in the direction of our dreams? What happened to us? Where are we going?

Our current world is divided by simplistic media sound bites, which are in turn driven by extreme ideological political rhetoric and intolerance. This increasingly vitriolic politicization of beliefs does not unite us to a common goal; instead it creates wedges between us and destroys family, community and civil discourse.

The foundation for an ideal democratic system is the recognition that each and every individual has a right to believe anything they wish to believe and to express those beliefs within the rule of law.

It is time for ordinary individuals to step up to some of the most profound and relevant philosophical questions in our history and confront the fact that "who we are" and what we believe may be more important than what we do.

We are confronted daily with a host of beliefs on a multitude of topics. This raises the question: "How can we distinguish the value of one belief compared to another -- particularly when they conflict?"

Beliefs are, for the most part, strongly held assessments and opinions. Beliefs are not true (or false) and they cannot be "proven." If something can be proven, it is a "fact" -- not a "belief." We all know as a "fact" that water will freeze at a certain temperature. Certain statements in the media and by others purport to be "facts" when they are in reality "beliefs." For example, we may hear that Joe Smith is an idiot. While you may be able to prove certain things about Joe Smith, your statement that he is an idiot will always be relative to an observer and our personal experience. He may be "smarter" than Bob, but "dumber" than Mary, but his personal intelligence will always be relative to some standard or to some set of beliefs. Joe may be creative but do poorly on tests. Does this make him an "idiot"?

While philosophically and linguistically "true" that a belief can never be true or false, it is also true that we cannot live without beliefs and judgments. We must make choices. And our choices are generally based on our assessments. Most people live and act as if their assessments (points of view) are true. They will generally defend their point of view if attacked or attempt to impose their view on others where possible. Many people are more committed to being right about their point of view than they are to the results they are supposedly committed to producing in their lives and in their work.

The extreme manifestation of this rigid belief in the unassailable "truth" of our beliefs is easily seen in situations of political or religious intolerance -- people literally engaged in destroying relationship, community and even society in the name of righteousness and a refusal to listen to other views as equally valid to one's own.

This does not mean that all views are the same: Some may be well grounded, while others may be strictly a matter of opinion or faith.

Our individual and collective challenge is to learn to value the diversity of our differing views (thank goodness we don't all have the same point of view) while at the same time developing rigorous practices for communicating and coordinating collective action -- given our differences.

We must learn to distinguish between "alignment" (which is a function of commitment) and "agreement" (which is a function of intellect and shared background understanding).

In the final analysis, our future will be a function of our actions and choices. The power to create a common future that can work for everyone requires we learn to listen generously to one another, to authentically express our experience and points of view and most importantly, to be open to the possibility that we can always accomplish more together than we can independently or working in opposition to one another.

I am reminded of Churchill's famous speech to the British people during one of their darkest hours when the outcome of the war was far from certain. He said, "This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning." So on this New Year's Day 2012, let's acknowledge and remember the strengths of what the past has taught us.

We must acknowledge our enormous success as a country, and give credit where it is due. We are rightly proud of our belief in individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the checks and balances on the power of the state over the individual, the full adherence to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary from the political structures that govern us. These ideals and principles are every bit as valid today as when they were first articulated by our founding fathers.

To safeguard the above noted principles, we absolutely must avoid outdated or rigid "either-or" beliefs. We must relearn the benefits of tolerance, authentic listening and civil discourse.

We have the capacity through our choices and our relationships with one another to create equally unprecedented outcomes in the future that work for everyone. The challenge and the choices are up to all of us.

For more by Jim Selman, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

© 2012 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.