Belief, In The Face Of Experience

Recently, something happened, and it brought to mind (again!) an old conflict that I’ve never fully been able to resolve. So, I thought I’d talk about it here, in case someone comes across it, and can provide some additional insights into it.

I think we all have some beliefs about life – how things are, how they should be, how one should react to and approach life, etc. And the thought that I’m struggling with is this: What happens when your beliefs conflict with what you observe around yourself? Do you change your beliefs and approach to life? More importantly, should you?

First of all, let me clarify that I’m not trying to split hair when I use the term “belief”. There is a lot of information out there that tries to precisely define “belief” and how it’s different from other similar concepts like “faith”, “hope”, “trust”, etc. But I’m not trying to go into those details. So, when I talk about “belief” in the current context, it’s a very loose definition and you can consider it to be “belief”, “faith”, “hope”, simply “thoughts”, or any other similar idea.

The point of the post is to observe our reactions to experiences in our lives that conflict with our belief system.

Before we proceed, let me also clarify another thing: I think beliefs can be both big and small – different levels of belief, where one might believe more strongly in one concept than in another. For example: I believe that it is wrong to cheat in an examination. I also believe that it is wrong to kill someone. And my belief in the second concept is much stronger than in the first, i.e., it is more wrong to kill someone than to cheat in an examination.

Now let’s look at the issue with another example. Say, I believe that it is wrong to lie on one’s resume. But I see that most people around me do lie on theirs. And prospective employers either don’t catch their lies, or they simply don’t care. Either way, those with forged resumes seem to be doing well. And it appears that if I were also to lie on my own resume, I could do better than what I am doing currently. So, the question is: should I go against my belief, and, given the experiences of those around me, lie on my resume too when it suits me? After all, I wouldn’t want to maintain an unfounded belief, following which is clearly hurting me. Do you go over to the dark side?

My beef with belief is: how do you know if what you believe in is actually right or not.

I “believe” there’s no given list of beliefs that you can simply follow – not unless you have blind faith in some “undeniable” source of truth – be it your parents, your religion and scriptures, the constitution and rule of law, or even your childhood class on ethics and morality at school.

And before you say that one should always do what one believes in, consider this: what if, somehow, for some reason, you developed a belief in something wrong? If you keep acting out of your beliefs, you’ll always be doing the wrong thing! There will be no way to change and get back on track. That’s why, I think beliefs need to be regularly re-evaluated and re-adjusted when required. The question is how do you know if it is time to give up or change your beliefs about a particular topic.

The problem may seem like a simple black-and-white case for the “big” topics (like not killing someone), but the smaller the topic (like cheating in an exam, or lying on the resume), the more difficult it becomes to draw the lines.

But irrespective of the belief being big or small, I think the approach one takes towards the whole problem can have a major impact on one’s life. It may not seem like it from the above example (what’s the worse that can happen if I simply decide to change and be willing to lie on the resume?), but consider this one:

Suppose you are a naive and trusting person. When you meet someone new, your default setting is to trust them, and believe what they tell you. Now suppose most of the people that you meet (and trust by default) happen to take advantage of your trust, and they hurt you financially or emotionally. So, when you meet a new person next time, you are faced with a decision: Do you stay true to your belief and trust this new person, potentially exposing yourself to more hurt? Or, do you change your belief based on your past experiences, and deal with that person with caution? Let’s assume that you decide enough is enough, and change your view about people. As a result, you maintain your distance from this new person, don’t open up to him, scrutinize his every action, every word for possible traps, etc. I think it’s safe to say that in this case, you’d have a very different relationship with this person, than what you would’ve had, had you trusted him. But, what if this person was indeed one whom you could’ve trusted? What if, by being overly cautious, you missed a great opportunity to develop a lifelong friendship and partnership? After all, the world is not just filled with treacherous people, there are still a few good people left. Wouldn’t you agree? 🙂

And that is the dilemma I see: When and which experiences do we let scar us into changing our beliefs? We don’t want to keep believing in something when it’s wrong and is hurting us. But at the same time, we don’t want to change just because we’ve only experienced one side of the equation – our belief may be right, but our current sample of experiences may just not be large enough to cover the cases where it was proved to be so.


I don’t have a solution for this conflict yet. Currently, I simply stick to my beliefs and hope there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. But I don’t know if that is the way it should be. I feel that there should be a better way to making these judgments.

Have you ever faced this dilemma? How did you decide what to do next? Has it been working out so far for you? I would love to hear your thoughts, if you’d be kind enough to share your wisdom with me!


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