Sharpe: This I Believe

George Sharpe
George Sharpe, Merrion Oil and Gas investment manager

In the early 1950s, radio pioneer, Ed Murrow, asked Americans from all walks of life to write short essays about their most fundamental beliefs, and if chosen, to read them in their own words on his program.

His goal was to point to the common meeting ground of beliefs, which is the essence of brotherhood and the foundation of our civilization. National Public Radio revived the effort in 2005, and collected hundreds of additional essays. From Jackie Robinson to Colin Powell to cocktail waitresses and high school students, 80 of the readings from both eras are contained in an audio book titled “This I Believe.”

Here are a handful of quotes from some of my favorite essays:

• Sarah Adams, a young college professor, whose life principles center around being cool to the pizza dude — “Coolness to the pizza dude is a practice in humility and empathy!  We have all taken jobs because some money is better than none.  In the big pizza wheel of life, sometimes you are the hot bubbly cheese, and sometimes you’re the burnt crust.  It is good to remember the fickle spinning of the wheel!”  

• Kathy Dahlen, a college student, on how observing her first autopsy cemented her belief in an enduring soul - “It struck me that this mass of tissue didn’t explain ambition or love or kindness or compassion.  Nor was there an organ to explain human will, or the drive to make music.”

• Elizabeth Deutsch, a 1955 16-year-old, explaining her earnest search for her own True North — “Sometimes in a moment of mental despair, I think the words, ‘God loves an honest doubter!’, and I am comforted.”  

• Oscar Hammerstein, the famous 1950’s playwright, explaining his optimistic happiness despite the then pending doom of nuclear war — “It is a modern tragedy that despair has so many spokesmen and hope so few!”

• Kay Redfeld Jamison, a Psych professor who suffers from manic-depressive episodes, explaining why she feels disruption is vital to continued personal growth – “Restlessness and discontent are vital things, and intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do.”

• John McCain described a guard who, while John was being punished as a POW, would loosen his torture ropes at night so he could sleep, then tighten them back up in the morning before guard change.  Weeks later on a Christmas morning, the guard came up to him in the prison courtyard and with his sandal, drew a cross in the dirt.  After a moment, the guard rubbed it out and walked away.  “To me, that was faith… a faith that unites and never divides… a faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity.  It is the faith I would die to defend.”

• Wallace Stegner, a 1950’s novelist, describes why he believes in moderating one’s beliefs  — “I’m suspicious of overly passionate faith, because it hangs witches and burns heretics, and I am more in sympathy with the witches and heretics than the sectarians who hang and burn them.  Unmoderated zeal, be it Christian, Muslim, Communist, or whatever, restricts the range of human understanding and the wise reconciliation of human differences, and creates an orthodoxy with a sword in its hand.”

Wow, does that last one sound like today or what?  While listening to the provocative narrations, I was struck by the questions, “What really is a belief?” and “Can beliefs change over time?” Webster defines a belief as “something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held conviction.” When young, we are taught WHAT to believe by our parents.  But at some point, it is incumbent on each of us to challenge those beliefs with the facts at hand, and to adjust those beliefs should the data warrant. Our parents taught us about Santa Claus, but at some point, the evidence to the contrary overwhelmed, and our beliefs somewhat sadly transformed.

I would like to further the (my) definition of “belief” to be something that cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, our nonbelief in Santa notwithstanding.  Knowledge is the collective attainment of facts and absolute truths, while belief is a conviction made based on that knowledge. As Kathy Dahlen observed during the autopsy, the mass of cells that is a cadaver is devoid of the feelings and emotions that once made that mass a person. It is then a leap of faith to the ensuing conclusion that “we” are different and separate from the mass of cells — “we” are our souls.  

Given the unprovable nature of our beliefs, it is unfortunate that our tendency is to defend them “to death.”  They are OUR beliefs!  As the definition says, we are CONVICTED that our beliefs are absolute truth!  We don’t really want to examine any evidence to the contrary, and rarely acknowledge the possibility that our beliefs are completely, or at least partially, wrong. As a child, I continued my belief in Santa Claus well beyond my doubting peers because when they started arguing about the logistical challenges of a fat man, flying reindeer, 7 billion people, skinny chimneys and such, I stuck my fingers in my ears and said, “LALALALA!”.  

While that was a child innocently hanging onto a preconceived fantasy, ignoring the facts and clinging to false beliefs can be dangerous.  Peoples’ views on climate change is an example on both sides of the issue. Deniers seem to ignore the mounting evidence of man’s impact, clinging to the valid, but incomplete, argument that there are a half dozen natural causes that have affected the climate since the beginning of time.  Environmental extremists, on the other hand, are calling for the immediate cessation of the development and use of fossil fuels, ignoring the absolute fact that for the time being, they still want to drive their cars and heat their homes. And both sides seem to be ignoring the reality that no matter the reason, the Earth is warming, and no matter how quickly we react, it will probably continue, so instead of arguing about it, maybe we should be spending our time and resources getting ready for a warmer planet.  At the end of the day, ignoring the facts doesn’t change the facts.      

Even when the facts aren’t debated, two individuals can still come to wildly different conclusions as to what it all means.  Wallace Stegner pointed out the evil that can come from the overzealous belief that our way is the ONLY way.  Unfortunately, our society is becoming increasingly divided between the far left and the far right, each convinced of their infallibility.  From energy to gun control to abortion to transgender rights, these groups draw a line in the sand and refuse to consider that their line might not be in the right place.  And what is most depressing about the increasing chasm between the two sides is the disdain they have for each other.  The Santa I believe in would be horrified at the hate and animosity that is rampant in today’s social conversations. 

In closing, it is important for each of us to establish a set of beliefs that govern our actions in the world. However, let us never be so arrogant as to contend that our beliefs are infallible. We don’t have to compromise our beliefs to acknowledge and appreciate the other perspective, and to treat our “adversaries” with courtesy, kindness, and respect. 

As was explained to doubting Virginia, even when it comes to Santa Claus, there is always another side to the argument!  

And with that, Merry Christmas.  Peace on Earth and good will to men!      

George Sharpe is an investment Manager for Merrion Oil & Gas of Farmington who writes a monthly column for Energy magazine.