When beliefs work

Do you have a crazy belief that serves you?

We have come a long way in our fight against dogma and superstition. We no longer think of mental illnesses to be caused by evil spirits, or that mercury can be used as a medicine. And yet, not all beliefs, however fantastic, are harmful.

The author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are ethereal beings that exist just as plants, animals, bacteria and viruses do. She believes that ideas have consciousness and float around, waiting for an owner to birth them. And she believes this with a passion. When a “very serious” NPR reporter tried desperately to give her an out – to call it a metaphor – she laughed and refused to take it. While she recognizes that treating an idea like a free-flowing spirit with its own agency isn’t rational and is perhaps unscientific, it does not shake her belief in them.

Why would a person continue to believe something they think is irrational? Her belief in ideas helped Gilbert write a book and effect a purposeful change in her own life as well as in the lives of the people she leads – her readers.

Authors and creatives are not alone in their beliefs. Issac Newton was very religious. He claimed how in the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince him of God’s existence. Albert Einstein’s famous quote on quantum theory “God does not play dice”, hints at the strength of his faith. Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who created perhaps the most famous rationalist, Sherlock Holmes, believed in fairies and that many cases of diagnosed mental illness were cases of spirits possessing the victim. Before his death, he wrote “The reader will judge that I have had many adventures. The greatest and most glorious of all awaits me now”.

I do not assert that all those beliefs I have cited above served their believers. But we see how even the greatest scientists and thinkers among us have beliefs that are inconsistent with their otherwise rational selves. To believe is to be human, and at times, the craziest beliefs can help us change the world for the better, where rationality only tethers us to doubt, skepticism and inaction.

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