It is an old story for two reasons. Is is old because it happened last century, in 1944. It is also old because it is timeless: it describes ordinary people - often families - choosing death over a life they believed would be worse.
For a few weeks, in 1944, Americans battled Japanese on the island of Saipan in World War II. Look it up if you must: young mens’ lives blown to bits, instantly, on both sides, the concrete expression of political struggle. (1)
What makes the Saipan story especially heart wrenching, is this. Rather than surrender to the Americans - whom they had been told were savages - hundreds of Saipan Japanese civilians committed suicide by throwing themselves off cliffs, crashing onto the rocks and into the sea. This, despite pleas by fellow Japanese over loudspeakers: Give in. The Americans will treat you well.
This is not what their leaders, whom they had trusted, had told them.
Whole families perished together.
If you watch, as I have, newsreels of these horrible, tragic scenes; if you recoil, as I did, at the thought that people could destroy not only themselves but their ancestors and descendants, wiping out whole generations; then you begin to understand the power of belief.
Nothing these Saipanese experienced could have convinced them of anticipated American atrocities. No direct stories came to them of Americans butchering friends, neighbors, brothers or sisters, children. No evidence; no proof. Nothing but what they had been told. What they had decided was true, because authorities had told them it was true. What they believed; or what - nurtured by fear - they had decided to believe.
What can we do with this word, this one word that describes for some the unlocking of the gates of heaven and for others a Saipanese choice we witness and find unfathomable?
Belief is what we have when we do not have facts. And facts themselves are nearly nonexistent things. Facts are nearly always about what was, rarely about what is, and never about what may be.
It is a fact that I am typing these words at this moment. Why I am typing these words is perhaps known to me but certainly not known to you, reading them later. You may think you know what I mean. From this thought, you believe you are right.
Belief has raised cities, created great civilizations, torn apart nations, created edifices of religion or non-religion, sustained wars of economics, underpinned perspectives on science, mythology, astrology, astronomy, built wondrous things and torn them down. Belief is all that makes us human.
Belief hunkers inside us, the unstated insatiable beast, the almost silent entity, spurring us to action or paralysis, to creation or destruction, to love or to hatred and everything in between.
So often we try to prove our beliefs. God exists. God doesn’t exist. Markets rule. People rule.
In so many cases, the best we can do is to argue that what has come to pass is fact.
An example. That my brother had pancreatic cancer is fact. That he died two years ago is fact. That he never told me, and that I only learned of his death through a random Facebook read is also fact. That he died from pancreatic cancer — that is very likely, but not fact. That he died thinking of me is extremely unlikely, but not fact either. That he died in agony likely is. Though at the moment of death, perhaps he had achieved that flash of peace, that final surrender, that absolution from misery that precedes the final moment.
And that last statement - encapsulating love, frustration, fear, anger, forgiveness, misunderstanding, and a profound sense of never knowing why he didn’t tell me, his only brother, of what he was living through — that is not fact, either. That is yearning. The same yearning that suggests that he is in a better place (we don’t know); that he is beyond the pain and suffering (likely, but we don’t know); that he is reunited with Mom and Dad (an even toss here); the idea that he has forgiven me for whatever caused the long separation (true yearning, but certainly not fact).
Without facts, belief sweeps in.
I’ll assert — in the absence of fact — that facts are harder to manipulate than beliefs. That beliefs pair better with fear than facts do. JFK died — fact. JFK was shot in the head — fact. JFK was assassinated — by definition of assassination, most likely fact. That JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald — assertion. And so on. Everything beyond that slow, tortuous drive through Dealey Plaza in 1963 enters into the murkiness of supposition, of conjecture, of conspiracies and fears and all the rest. And this terrain is rich soil for the plows of political and economic manipulation.
Whole peoples have been sent to slaughter. Whole peoples have been slaughtered. All victims of this sort of thing.
In the US, we prove assertions in courts of law, generally (first modification) beyond a reasonable doubt (second modification). But I’ll suggest (hedging) that doubt is simply a rejection of an assertion. And while we’re at it — how can we possibly define “reasonable”? After all, we accuse each other of being unreasonable all the time - without, perhaps, any idea of what “reasonable” is, other than some kind of conformance with how we see the world.
We act on belief. And well we should: think of our ancestry (if, of course, you believe that we arose out of the African continent and didn’t spring from the mud of the Middle Eastern earth (or any other source you care to name: after all, it really could be turtles all the way down(2))). Running around on the savanna, if a threatening sound emerged from nearby cover, we didn’t stop to prove the fact that this sound might belong to something interested in eating us. No, believing this to be the case, we did what was necessary to survive.
(Yes, the preceding sentence is not fact - clever that you noticed. I did my best — I didn’t say we ran and hid, or stood and attacked, or screeched, or threw rocks. I assert here that if we hadn’t done what we needed to do to survive, we wouldn’t be here today. And that, of course, assumes that we arose from the African continent and not in a privileged garden.)
At its worst, belief kills. All too often. You don’t need me to tell you this. That belief kills is actually a fact, demonstrated over and over again, in countless wars, in countless expressions of one group believing in its superiority over another. Hence, Nazi Germany. Hence, the Thirty Years’ War. Hence, Jim Crow. Hence, the Taliban. Hence, the American conquest of its indigenous peoples.
But that’s far too easy. Belief kills in more subtle ways. Belief eats ideas for breakfast. Belief conquers arguments, arms people, closes minds, creates enemies, nurtures fear and anger and anxiety. Belief does all this, because we cannot tolerate uncertainty. Who we are. What we mean. What happens to us when we die. Why we exist at all.
What does this all mean? What can we do with this?
For one thing, we’d do well to stop throwing rocks at each other based on some notion that one set of beliefs is somehow more factual than another. If there’s any “fact” in the sides we seem so eager to take, the tribes we seem so eager to belong to, it’s this. Truth, such as it is, is an approximation. Yes, truth may reside in elegant mathematical formulas (until superseded by the one that refutes what had been accepted before) - but mathematical formulas have never taught us how to look into our lover’s eyes, or how to react when a loved one is suddenly, seriously ill.
The messy reality is that reality is messy. We have each grown up into our adult lives, with experiences fully known only to us (if even then), and with beliefs shaped early on and then reinforced through our survival mechanisms of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. This is the pleasure of reinforcement (today we adroitly call these reinforcements “echo chambers”), versus the pain of contrariness, of opposing points of view.
As children, we question, absorbing like sponges what surrounds us - first, perhaps light and sound and color and hot and cold and all the rest, which is more than enough; and as our learning bursts upon us and then decelerates over time, we become strangers to our younger selves, accumulating experiences and reinforcements and beliefs the way a nautilus builds chambers; until, worn at last, we descend into what appears to be mental frailty but what may really be a reacquaintance with that unlayered, unshelled creature we once were.
In between our two childhoods, we swim while entangled in nets of belief. We must, to survive and thrive. We must also believe, like fish who may only be surprised when hauled to the surface, that within the nets we are free.
Hence, the ease of heading down well-worn paths that lead us to predictable ends. In this we find solace in an uncertain world. (To call this world more uncertain than the one our parents, grandparents or distant ancestors lived through is, of course, a belief — and one of the most unfortunate and self-limiting kind. Every existence is uncertain. Ours is just uncertain in a new and, to us, uncertain way.)
So, having grown up and been nurtured in our belief systems, we might do well to stop throwing our simian waste at each other. It smells, and it’s easily flung back.
Will and Ariel Durant stated that we must respect one another’s delusions (3). Sounds like good advice. Why? Well, consider these things — and decide whether they’re assertions or facts. We’re all we have, unless something disruptive comes along. If we insist upon winning — especially when we’re split down the middle, but even if we’re split into thirds, fourths, fifths or more — we diminish ourselves through our own rejections.
A nation only of winners is a nation of halves at best, smaller shards more likely. And thus divided, not much of a nation at all.
Are there absolutes? Possibly. Murder comes to mind. And its vicious cousin, genocide. Stepping back from these extremes, we find lesser stepping stones to the rejection of life — which is, after all, what murder and genocide really are. When we reject each other because of our differences (upbringing, belief, what have you) — we commit small murders, each and every one of us. Far better to find the common ground.
Are there extremists? Are there those so far beyond the pale that we would do well to confine their thinking? Probably. But again, not fact. For in the end, where do we draw the line? We “know,” collectively, where that line might be. But like Heisenberg’s electron, it vanishes as we draw near.(4)
Which brings us, finally, to me and you.
I’ve asserted here what I believe to be a statement about the nature of belief. I began with a story with which you may or may not have been familiar. You may disagree as to why people threw themselves off cliffs. “In fact,” you may disagree with all my assertions here, as running completely counter to what you believe. You may believe this to be a complete waste of time - why grumble about what we can’t change? Or you may agree with some things and disagree with the rest. All good.
But in our torn and tattered world, we must find a respectful way forward. Let’s put down the weapons, the stones, the simian poop. We’ve got any number of challenges to tackle. Divided, we’ll do nothing more than muddle through at best. Working together is our best bet, the best belief we can trust.
Look around. We’re all we have, and nature and the planet are all we have, too. If you would believe one thing with me, believe that with unity comes strength, and while we may have honest differences of opinion about how best to move forward, we can at least agree that distrust corrodes, and that trust in each other, however fragile, is the strongest bridge we can build.
And this. At its best, belief has built new things, created new worlds into which we can all move, shown us promise and given us the hope and strength to move forward, believing we can be better, believing we can love each other, believing in our human promise. Belief can save us from our bitter selves. It’s what we decide to believe that defines our salvation.
Of course, you’re free to disagree with all I’ve said here. Tell me what you believe, and let the conversation begin.
1. There are many references to the Saipan story — this source places it in the context of military action: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/the-horrific-mass-suicides.html
2. Not an unusual phrase, by any means - here’s the Wiki roundup of “turtle” stories: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down
3. From “The Lessons of History,” Will and Ariel Durant.
4. A stretch, admittedly, of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - here’s a detailed explanation: https://byjus.com/jee/heisenberg-uncertainty-principle/