(This article is an expansion upon our earlier “Three Paradigms“)
As part of our continual reassessment of life, Kay and I are constantly considering which paradigms are worth keeping as “musts” and which ought to be rejected. We currently have nine paradigms on our “keeper” list, considering them to be indispensable for mentally-healthy people, and considering their absence in a person to be a deficit of character. There are certainly other worthy paradigms out there, so we do not mean to suggest that only these nine are to be considered good. Rather, these are what we currently perceive as being fundamental, essential, and necessary.
These paradigms are completely about religion, and yet not about religion at all. Nor do they contradict any of the premises of any major religion. Similarly, they are appropriate to the atheist, and yet have nothing at all to do with atheism. Simply put, they are about enlightened living. These have been recognized in various forms by atheists and believers alike, and are simply the result of applied wisdom.
These paradigms are probably worthy of a book, but here’s the gist of each.
- It is better to live by principle than by whim. Many live life moment by moment, decision by decision, whim by whim. Their lives are relatively meandering, purposeless, and observably unfulfilling. They do not spend enough time examining the way of things on the Earth to recognize that there are indeed some principles that are worthy of adopting as one’s own self-imposed rules for living. One fairly obvious (though whimsical) example of a good principle by which one might live is, “Don’t pet porcupines, rattlesnakes, or alligators.” If a person were to adopt such a principle, he could easily see at the end of his life that it had “paid off”! Though it is perhaps less obvious at the outset, this is true with other, more fundamental, principles or paradigms as well. For instance, one might well appreciate being in a position to say at the end of his life, “I never once cheated my boss”, or “I was never unfaithful to my wife”, or “I never betrayed my kids by making promises and then failing to keep them.” When viewing these things from the end of life backwards in time to our present, it’s fairly easy to see their value, but most people never venture to consider their lives in this way. Author Stephen Covey calls it “Start with the end in mind” in his stellar book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. For example, Covey argues, roughly speaking, that if one’s vision is to be remembered as having been a great parent, one is more likely to act today in such a way as to be a great parent, rather than putting off whatever action until tomorrow. If one is going to live by principle, then clearly, he must identify and acknowledge those principles by which he intends to live. We suggest that the remainder of this present list of paradigms would be sound principles by which people could guide their own lives.
- All rational, all the time. We see no sense in ever being irrational, unreasonable, illogical, inconsistent, or self-contradictory. This means that we are regularly examining our own thoughts, beliefs, motives, and behaviors as a way of life. Thus do we avoid taking irrational positions such as, “Well, I know that I shouldn’t support Candidate A because he’s really a mess, but I’ll vote for anybody if it means getting Candidate B out of office.” Or similarly, “America: Love it or leave it.” This is a false dilemma and it is not in the least rational, for it leaves out some fairly obvious choices, such as “improve it to make it more loveable”. Another example of irrational thought that we avoid is “Change takes time. ” Try telling that to a man who wants his kitchen fire put out immediately before it destroys his whole house! Indeed, this particular fallacy is often spoken by people who are really arguing, “Since change takes time, we are going to postpone any action on the change you are suggesting that we should make.”
- The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—wherever it may lead. We are not interested in believing, repeating, promoting, teaching, or exhibiting anything that is not true. This means that not even our longest-held or dearest beliefs are safe from new discoveries. Indeed, we have discarded many previous ideas in favor of what eventually proved to be true. Similarly, we strive to discard any dishonest or inaccurate view of ourselves that we should discover (in our own thinking), and we strive never to exaggerate, except for the sake of humor. A sub-paradigm to this paradigm is: “Hearsay must not be trusted before it is vetted.” If this sub-paradigm were adopted–even in America alone–it would positively transform our society to a degree that is hard to imagine! Sadly, we are a culture that thrives on believing things we have been told, and repeating them as if they are certainties. One example that shares this problem and complicates it by adding yet other problems is the fairly popular expression, “What the Republican Party needs is to get back to its conservative roots.” A great many people say this without ever having investigated the roots of the Party for themselves to see whether they are “conservative” at all. (See here for more on this question.) Indeed, in our society, we may readily claim to be “Liberal” or “Conservative” without ever venturing to wrestle with giving an exact definition to these terms. We don’t know, therefore, whether by such labels, we are telling the truth about ourselves or not, yet we continue to use them. Our national paradigm is a “fuzzy math” paradigm; we are a hearsay culture to be certain. But imagine if we were otherwise; imagine if we cared enough about Truth to insist on it at all times! And imagine if we had the courage to follow it wherever it may lead—into reform, self correction, admission of wrongdoing, and continual striving toward a more excellent way.
- To care about weighty matters is better than not to care. We were introduced to this idea most aptly, perhaps, by the writings of educator Charlotte Mason. When writing specifically about success in educating youth, she opined thus: “The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” We find that when people do not care, they become useless and irresponsible with regard to the society in which they live. This is not to suggest that they have no value, but if you’re wanting to understand where we’re coming from, imagine yourself stranded on a deserted island with only one other person, and that person doesn’t care about finding food, water, or shelter. In this sense, they would be useless and irresponsible to you. Now take that same idea and apply it to our society today, which is plagued by a number of persistent problems. When people do not care about those problems, not only do they fail to help solve them, but they often hinder those of us who are trying to solve them. (See this article as an example.) It is indeed better to care than not. And yes, there are indeed some issues that are not worthy of much of our attention, such as the daily activities of Lindsay Lohan, or the Facebook page of Dancing with the Stars. These things are merely of entertainment value, and do not concern the fundamentals of life as to topics such as: morality, relationships, government, health, environment, education, etc.
- Risk and courage are essential to principled living. If one chooses to live by principle, he simply must have the courage to take certain risks along the way. One risks overturning his own (mis)understandings if he relentlessly pursues the truth, and one risks undermining his own irrational justifications if he relentlessly pursues logic. Similarly, one risks conflict and ostracization if he ventures to correct others or to reject their faulty paradigms for sound ones. Or further, one must risk his money if he is to invest in a better lifestyle than what he current has. For Kay and me, our religious understanding could not be nearly as well developed if we hadn’t mustered the courage to question even the very existence of God or the deity of Jesus. Many, however, fear to “go there”, and so they completely miss what all can be learned while “wrestling” with such questions. Similarly, had I never had the courage to publish various political beliefs I had in the past, no one would ever have challenged them, disproving the ones that were faulty. Moreover, had I not had the courage to debate my beliefs (on various topics), investigating as needed to continue the argument, I never would have discovered just how right or wrong I was on various points. Where I was right before, I am really right now for having refined the position all the more. And where I was wrong, I now recognize just how wrong I was, and am completely freed from it even to the extent that I can now argue effectively against what I previously believed. But all these things require risk and courage, and for most of us, perhaps the greatest fear is that of having our fundamental paradigms upset in some way. I submit, however, that great freedom can come from having one’s paradigms proven wrong, for he can then be free to discover better paradigms. How sad, though, that fear binds so many to living with paradigms that they already know (or should know) are false.
- Self correction is the rightful duty of all people. It seems only natural that if each of us were in the habit of honestly and diligently correcting his own errors, the world would be a much nicer place. Thus do we assume upon ourselves an obligation to correct our own errors. This applies to everything from simple matters of fact to deep moral/ethical issues. To cite some random and mundane examples, we strive to use proper grammar, we refuse to use the word “Indians” to refer to people who are not from India, and we refuse to enter through the “Exit” and vice versa. Further, we hold that it is better to admit it when we are wrong, and to clean up any mess we have made, whether figurative or literal. Should we stray over the center line when driving toward an oncoming tractor-trailer, we deem it in our own best interest to correct our path immediately. Should we drop crumbs on the kitchen counter, it is clearly better to clean them up than not. Should we misspell a word, it is better to go back and correct it than to leave it be. These things, whether mundane or monumental, are important in principle, and it is our adoption and adherence to these principles that make us who we are. People who do not adopt self correction as a way of life are unreliable and untrustworthy. We, however, would like to be more helpful than that to those around us; it brings us joy to do that for others, as well as for ourselves. Though the tasks may seem trifling and inconvenient in the moment, I have never once regretted taking the time to clean off my desk, or to go back and correct a typo in an email or article I have written. Self correction is a way of life that is much superior to leaving behind oneself a string of negligence, errors, and omissions to be hounded with for a lifetime!
- Do no unjust harm. We believe it is self evident that no man has a right to harm another in any unjust way, nor to participate in doing such harm. Don’t get me wrong: there are certain situations in which it is rightful and just to harm others in various ways. An intruder into my house, for example, is not likely to escape alive, for I will readily use deadly force in protection of my family and of my self. This is wholly just and the justice of it is indeed self evident. Similarly, I do not hesitate to correct someone just because it may “harm” (or hurt) his or her feelings. If a man asserts, for example, “You should come to my church because we really go by the Bible,” I have no qualms whatsoever in responding, “If your church ‘goes by the Bible’, then how do you justify that you are incorporated under the laws of the State, own real estate, have a corporate board of directors, have a ‘youth ministry’, do not share your food in common, have no elders, and do not expel your members when they insist on living unrighteously? Your church’s practices in these ways is inconsistent with the biblical account of the original ekklesia.” Though such a reply may indeed cause the man consternation or offense, there is nothing unjust or inappropriate about such a reply. Indeed, if the man initiates such an assertion, it is his duty to defend it or to admit its faults if he cannot defend it. This is why this paradigm uses the word “unjust”. By “unjust harm”, we mean that it is unacceptable to steal from another, to defraud him, to violate his safety or property, or to cause him undue inconvenience, whether on purpose or by our own carelessness. This means that I won’t enter through the exit of a grocery store or drive the wrong way in the lanes of a parking lot because any person traveling in the the authorized direction would be inconvenienced by my unruliness. Similarly, it means that I won’t carry on a telephone conversation in a restaurant or play music too loudly in my neighborhood because these things are generally known to be irritating to others. Why should they have to overhear my private conversation? And if my snoring wakes my wife, I’ll roll over to make it stop, for I don’t presume a right to interrupt her sleep by snoring. Further, I won’t tell a customer “I don’t know” when the fact is that I really do know, but I’m just too lazy at the moment to bother to tell them what they need to know. And oppositely, I will not pretend to know what the customer is asking about when I do not know. Millions of clerks and sales people do this, whether to avoid embarrassment or to “make the sale”, but it always does harm to the customer to be lied to, for if it is not outright fraud, it is at least an inconvenience in their search for the best product or service to meet their needs. If a large portion of our society were to adopt this one paradigm of “do no unjust harm”, the transformation would be utterly amazing. Think of all the strife in our society that would instantly disappear if each person quit harming others!
- It is better to try to help others than to leave them alone. While it is true that others may often reject our help, even resenting or shunning us, we find that there is no other way to help most people than to attempt to “wrestle” with their thinking. Most people will not correct themselves nearly as quickly when left alone as they will with the help of someone else. And indeed, a great many people, though they may not resent the help, will often fail to heed it. Example: I gently corrected a good friend years ago because he habitually pronounced “et cetera” as “ek cetera“. He promptly thanked me, yet he never corrected the problem. In contrast, however, another good friend had the irritating habit of asking questions immediately after you had just answered them. You’d say, “My sister just bought a gray truck”, and he would ask, “Yeah, what color is it?” I (probably not gently enough) did the same thing to him about three times in a row and he finally said “Ok, that’s enough; I get it.” After that, he never did it again, to my knowledge! Similarly, our friend Michelle was willing to stand up to me some years ago regarding my (then) “Republican” stance on war. (I belong to no political party now.) She challenged the righteousness and logic of it, and I chose to admit the truth–that I didn’t have a legitimate case. Had she not been willing to stand toe to toe and risk offending me, I might be holding on to those faulty paradigms even to this day. As another friend told me once, “If you’re afraid of offending people, you can never help anybody.” Indeed, it is easy to offend people when they are dull and in the midst of their regular activities, but when someone realizes he’s drowning, it’s not hard to get him to accept your help. The risk is in convincing people that they are indeed “drowning” when they do not yet realize it themselves! Certainly, it is foolish to continue to try to help others once they are hostile toward you, for it only deepens the hostility to continue trying, but I fear that far too many never try at all, either for lack of concern or of courage. Imagine where we could be as a society, though, if a significant number of us were willing to help others assertively!
- It is better to oppose disorder, error, and evil than to tolerate them. When one tolerates fleas in the house, he gets more fleas. When a teacher tolerates unruliness from his students, he gets more unruliness. When one tolerates unhealthy foods in his diet, he becomes increasingly unhealthy. And so it is with disorder, error, and evil in our society; the more we tolerate them, the more they grow. Let me state at the outset that I believe that great care is in order when trying to legislate behavior upon a society, but even so, to fail to prohibit certain acts is just as harmful as to over-legislate. For example, in our society, there is no criminal punishment for an elected official who exceeds the lawful powers of his office. We tolerate these things without providing a powerful deterrent to them, and then we complain that public corruption seems to get worse and worse each year! Similarly, we tolerate the immoral, unjust, and even illegal acts of certain officials in our churches and social organizations, even though we constantly bemoan the compromised state of these institutions. Or to give another example, we complain that the average member of our organization isn’t “committed enough”, and yet we regularly put off making corrections to our organizations when their imperfections are pointed out by the members. This happens both at the corporate and personal levels as well. We complain that our garages are a mess, yet we neglect to clean and to organize them. We complain that our employees are inefficient and unfocused, yet we neglect to perfect, promote, and facilitate our company’s mission statement. Whatever the nature and importance of the problem, it is clearly better to fix it than to leave it be. Yet we so often choose to live in a state of compromise, to our own chagrin. This is utter foolishness, and yet it is an unquestioned way of life for so many. We buy buildings for our businesses with no business plan for maintaining the signage and the painting—and the next thing we know, we have a reputation for being outdated, rundown, or sloppy. We have kids without having any plan for raising them in a principled fashion that can keep them on the “straight and narrow”—and before we know it, they are miserable and in serious trouble. In short, we do ourselves no favors when we take the passive stance regarding what ails us.
That such paradigms as these can even be imagined is solid evidence of just how high humanity could rise if it took a notion to do so. I doubt that anyone could ever present a logical or factual argument against any of them, and yet so few seem to endeavor to adopt them. I suppose that this is simply further evidence of how low is our society’s view of principled living, and yet we still seem to admire the principled hero of the silver screen. How puzzling!
My hope is for a better day, in which millions have come, one by one, to a higher level of thinking and aspiration.