Over the past few months, I have been thinking about some of my core beliefs in life, and whether they remain valid. Its good, in my mind, to never assume something to be always valid in the form that it was once held. Everything should be checked and recalibrated periodically. Preventative maintenance, if you will. There has been a massive surge in identity politics lately and at the core of that is the concept of relative truth. I don’t like relative truth very much, so I have been thinking a lot about whether there is real validity there, and if not, why not. And what does all that mean when people are so passionate about it and completely defining themselves in terms of it. Do I need to reconsider?
I guess that that is the first belief I have been testing. Given the relentless pressure in the world nowadays for truth to be relative – “What’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me” – I have taken some stances that have not always been popular because I DO believe that truth is independent of the observer.
In my own view, truth stands independently of ANY observer of it; and does not change because the viewer changes. That does not mean that what I know is the perfect truth or that what I believe is the perfect truth either. The things that I “know”, and the things that I “believe”, are my best efforts at understanding that truth, and using that understanding to place myself objectively in the world; of surrounding myself with a framework that gives context, and gives perspective. The framework, to be really useful and meaningful, has to have the power to form me and not to be formed by me as my views change. I believe, quite simply, that I am too small to know something absolutely; that the very nature of fully knowing something is beyond me. (This means, inevitably, that doubt is not something to be ashamed of or disapproving of – doubt is the flip side of the same coin; the other is faith) But, as I navigate this world, there are certain things I must accept to be true; (to the best of my meagre ability to discern that truth), and even – especially – if I don’t particularly find those truths very comfortable, in order to make sense of it all. These are the things I believe to be independently absolutely true.
And then, because I accept them to be true, I must make them mean something. I hang my view of life and the world, on those “truths”. I allow them to be the ruler, the gauge, the metric, and the navigational chart of my journey. They set the stage for the meaning, for the purpose, for the relevance of my life. They become my North Star, that I can steer sometimes trackless oceans by. Does this mean I believe in relative truth? No, I don’t believe it does. I believe those truths are absolute, which is why I am prepared to spend my whole life in pursuit of whatever those truths form me into, or lead me to.
The best analogy of this thinking is the blacksmiths forge. There is a lot of simple beauty and insight in the old images. Perhaps not a familiar image in this day and age, so let me lay it out.
There is a stock of raw iron to one side. A very very hot fire in the centre, capable of softening that iron so that it can be worked. That same fire burns off impurities to leave a purer raw metal behind for forging.
There is an anvil nearby on which softened metal can be beaten; and the hammer, wielded to work that soft iron into a useful form. Iron takes time to heat and effort to form.
There is planning; intent and purpose.
Days of heating, beating, reheating and re-beating. Eventually a useful shape emerges and is then worked into its final form.
Then there is cooling, and tempering, and if it is to be an edged weapon, then a blade to be sharpened and polished.
This is life, for all of us. But this process is uncomfortable and hard, and often we complain or rebel, seeking to be formed by a different process. Often we feel aggrieved; “Why is it so hard?” We feel we have the right and power and authority to decide the shape of the anvil, the weight of the hammer, and to set the comfort level of the heat of the fire. Do we? Really? I feel we do not. I believe that these things are set in place intrinsically. The impurities we have, the heat of the fire, these things are not determined by us but by life itself; circumstance and events we do not control; and we are the metal that is being worked, not the blacksmith wielding the hammer.
In someone else’s life, there might be a time when as our lives cross paths, I might be their hammer or their anvil, and they might be the same in mine; but it would be wrong and is no small amount of arrogance for us to decide that that is to be our role in another’s life.
There are a number of these things against which I am shaped, and by which I am shaped. But here is the thing. I am shaped by things that challenge me, that “offend” me. By things I disagree with, not by the familiar things that I know well. Bu they can only change me if I am malleable; softened, and workable. If I am unprepared for it – still cold and hard – they may dent me, but they won’t re-form me.
The things I agree with have lost the power to change me, because when I come up against them I do so with synergy, a pre-defined and working partnership. So it is the things I disagree with, the differences, the challenges, the dissonances, that have the power to change me and form me into a new thing. Different opinions have the power to change me.
I like being on the anvil. It’s a meaningful place. It has purpose. I do not enjoy the hammer, but I appreciate its results. I do not enjoy the fire of testing, but the intense heat and the time it takes to achieve its work, makes me workable, humble, malleable and less polluted. Testing produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope. And hope is a powerful engine. It is directed, and specific. It is purpose.
Jordan B. Peterson speaks much of the “horror of being” and of the fundamental fact that it can be endured when we have meaning and purpose, and not otherwise. It’s perhaps a little hyperbolic, but at the same time it gets the point across very well. The escape of the “horror of being” lies not in hedonism, or in rebellion and bitterness, or in asserting our rights, or in escapism, but in finding meaning and purpose. In picking up the heaviest thing you can find to carry, that has some usefulness to it, and then carrying it as far as you can.” Testing, endurance, character, hope.
We improve because we are tested, because we compete and discover ways to be better. I remember many amazing scenes from the movie “The Gladiator” but one of the most interesting ones was the scene where Maximus walked past Commodus, who had arrived at the front in glorious gilded armour after the battle had already been won. Commodus erroneously believed that “there are many kinds of courage” and thus had already disappointed his stoic father Marcus Aurelius. Commodus, who had decided for himself that he would choose his own fires, his own anvil and his own hammer, and achieve only to his own level of satisfaction, was rehearsing a set pattern of swordsmanship against a number of swordsmen. The pattern was athletic, and demanding, so it would strengthen him, maybe, but it was definitely and clearly not designed to increase his skill. In fact, it would limit it, as we see in one of the penultimate scenes where, as they are about to enter the Coliseum, Maximus asks Commodus with disbelief “You, would fight ME? Maximus’ skills were forged in the urgency and heat of battle not in the luxury of practised rehearsal. His lack of respect for the rehearsed sword drills was palpable.
In this increasingly comfortable world, we must become responsible for testing ourselves in order to improve. The nature of our lives is that it is largely very civilised, and circumstances that bring real testing are rare, and often when they do arrive avoided because of the discomfort it requires. This, for me is at least part of the purpose of suffering. Its a refining fire, a blacksmiths hammer. And while it may not be pleasant, it can be good for me.