The other night at the pub, because it seemed to come up in the conversation, I asked my friend John, “Do you believe in Friendship?” His answer was a very firm “yes”. After all, we are friends, and were we not, I might not have asked him the question.
It was a bit of a set-up, I admit.
But in John’s case, an important one. Because as he said himself, not all that long before, if asked he would have said just as firm a “no”. Because until he started hanging out with our writers’ group and D&D sessions, John really didn’t have that many friends. What is more, he didn’t believe in friendship. He was better off without the nuisance of other people.
And when you come down to it, why should he believe in friendship? Why should any of us believe in something that we can’t put our hands on? Friendship has no mass, no molecules. Unlike light, it is neither a wave nor a particle, and you can’t see it. It takes up no space, has no weight, and is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. As far as physical existence goes… well, it doesn’t.
The glass of beer I was holding as we talked clearly existed. The glass, the beer, and the drinker (me) were all there to see – to weigh, to measure the volume (decreasing), to smell and taste. But the reason we were there drinking together, the only reason I might add, was one we couldn’t prove.
But that is the nature of belief. If you can prove something exists because you can see, hear, smell, or touch it, you don’t have to believe in it. Belief is reserved for things you can’t prove. I didn’t have to believe in the beer or John, because there they were.
And yet of all the things there, the thing that was the most important couldn’t be proven to exist. Because without our friendship, John would not have been there to ask. I wouldn’t have been there either, because I don’t drink alone as a rule.
As we talked more about friendship, John made the observation that it was really difficult for him to come to believe in friendship. He hadn’t experienced it in any real way, I suppose, and so he had decided that it really didn’t exist. And after all, the fact that other people said they had friends meant nothing. Some people believe the earth is flat, and I believe them to be stupid. But their belief isn’t going to convince me of anything.
Besides, the spherical nature of the earth is something we can prove, so I don’t have to believe in it.
Friendship, however, requires an effort to believe in. You have to make an effort to make friends. You have to make an effort to trust people. You have to take the risk of liking people if you are going to be their friend.
And what if they don’t like you? What if you believe that you are just basically unlikable – not worthy of friendship?
This was how John felt. And his belief that he was not worthy was just as strong as his new belief that I am his friend. But it was a belief he had to give up. In order to believe in friendship, he had to give up believing that he was unworthy of friendship.
And giving up beliefs is harder than learning to believe. If learning to trust people is hard, giving up the habit of distrust is harder. Because very often the things we believe in are given to us before we understand what our belief entails. Sometimes even before we realize that they are our beliefs. I think most things we believe in are like that.
We grow up with beliefs that are given to us when we are young. We believe our parents love us. Mostly, I hope, because we have evidence that it is so. But in some families, maybe not so much. And perhaps, in those families, people grow up not believing in love.
We grow up believing that we live in a free country, though often with less evidence than that we have a loving family. And since very few have any experience of any other country, we don’t really have anything to compare it with. We just believe in it. Because…. It’s always there.
Same thing with God. If you live in a family that goes to church, you believe in it. If you live in a family, or a community where Santa Claus brings you presents on the night of the 24th of December you believe that – until some kid two years older than you laughs and says, “You don’t believe in baby things like that!” (That kid, by the way, is being a dick.)
If you are forty years old and say that you believe in God, however, the fact that somebody who’s forty-two, says, “You can’t be serious!” doesn’t make much difference. When you are six, and someone doubts Santa, it sets you thinking. God, somehow, doesn’t get questioned so often – even though Santa has been bringing you presents for as long as you can remember, and God has done squat as far as you can tell.
Not that I am calling into question the reality of God. That’s for you to decide. But it’s interesting that the quality of belief is different, isn’t it? Santa, no; virgin birth, yes. Easter Bunny, no; resurrection, yes. Where is the difference – for you?
Socialism, no; Capitalism, yes?
Maybe, for some of us, not believing in the Big Things we’ve always believed in is just too difficult. Losing that belief would cause us to question too much. If capitalism isn’t the best system, what else do we have to look at? What if our laws aren’t just? What if our society is rife with inequalities? What if we aren’t living in the best country in the world? We might have to do something about that. It’s easier to stick with what we think we know.
But John had to give up something well known and, as far as he knew, true. He had to give up the image of himself as a fat, clumsy, unlikable nerd. And in fact, it wasn’t until he couldn’t stand the pain of believing these things that he found the strength to change and to risk finding something better to believe in.
Who knows, maybe even love.
But when it was too painful to stay as he was, he took a leap of faith.
And he got a pint of beer out of it.
Funny thing, that. Friendship, hope, love and faith…You can’t prove they exist – not the same way beer exists.
But you can’t live without them.
Any more than John could.