The human brain appears to have evolved a mechanism for developing belief from emotional need and nothing more than that. Belief can be based on evidence, but very often it is not. This explains belief in clairvoyance and faith healing – activities that have been proven to be based on simple trickery so many times, that you would think the profession (if such it can be called) would have died out a very long time ago. But they bounce back time after time because people want to believe. Belief brings comfort when all other sources of hope appear to have dried up.
Belief also acts for many as a form of social cohesion. You spend money on your football team because you believe they are going to win. If your actions were only based on evidence there would be many Saturdays when you’d probably decide to save your money. Belief that runs counter to evidence in this way can also allow people to remain connected to those they have lost. Debbie Reynolds’ last words reportedly were that she just wanted to be with her daughter Carrie Fisher, even though humanity has seen no previous examples of such meetings taking place. Again it’s down to complexity. The feeling of a complex consciousness, with whom you have interacted in so many affirming ways, suddenly being excised from your life can feel too difficult to bear. Of course those coats and shoes have not been worn for the last time. That would be absurd: you’ll definitely see the person again some day. Before you know it this belief is shared and has collective rituals attached to it.
Paid work is in most cases a shared collective ritual. Belief in paid work is largely evidence based, in that if you don’t do it you can’t pay bills or treat yourself to that Ferrero Rocher baguette with chips and mayonnaise on a Friday night, washed down with a potato daiquiri of course. Aside from the hard evidence of money, this belief is helped along by the Protestant work ethic all the time telling you that any tasks you get through are self improving. So even a modest pension liberates you from all of that. The bonds are cut loose. But then inevitably you start wondering whether, if you’re not careful, you might lose contact with the forces that have kept you properly socialised until recently. This is where another form of belief comes in. You can go along to a local basket making club or volunteer in a charity shop, and your belief that these are self improving activities will sustain you. My problem, which I also had all the way through childhood, is that I’m very easily bored by organised predictable regularity. I belonged to a couple of sporting clubs when I was a child, but given that we were supposed to practise every week there were some weeks when I simply did not feel like going and got nothing out of it when I was there. This has in turn led me always to wonder why regular worship is considered a requirement of many religions. Belief, regardless of evidence, presumably tells you that the deity might in some way be displeased if you absented yourself. I’m more inclined to think she or he might be bored with seeing the same old faces every week.
So. How to avoid declining into that retired stereotype of a red faced old man with a comb-over, wearing a dressing gown with brown Jesus sandals and grey socks and laughing distractedly into his copy of the Daily Mail as he sips his pint of Jack Daniels at 10.30 each weekday morning in Wetherspoon’s? The likely answer is self-belief. Tricky, because a pre-requisite for self-belief is a degree of self-esteem, and I guess I will come out of the closet and admit that I have always had trouble with that too. But I now have some time to work on it, alone – which is probably a required state for beginning to deal with self-esteem. As I’ve said, being a teacher helped me a lot as a person, but I was never really wired for being enmeshed with the fates of so many people simultaneously with no real boundary to the process and no release from responsibility. I’ll now focus on tasks that can actually be completed.