Awhile back, I heard of a concept called “magical thinking.” Magical thinking suggests that only thinking makes it so. It’s the kind of thinking that suggests that your desires alone, rather than hard work and planning, are the keys to your success. With that in mind, particularly after watching the news over the past 18 months, I have created a new phrase, “magical dogmas,” which are views that are so big and conceptual that they encompass all other beliefs and occurrences that might possibly refute them. Thus, magical dogmas can’t be confirmed or refuted, as all knowledge falls under their influence.
“I think, therefore I am”
You probably don’t realize yours, but we all have our own “magical dogmas.” They’re all too common. As it turns out, if you look around you will see how many of us needlessly hold on to them as though life itself depended on it. For example, “Everything happens for a reason,” is a magical dogma. It’s so all-inclusive that it serves as its own explanation. You can’t really disprove it or demonstrate contrary evidence to it.
“It’s only true if there is evidence to support it,” is another magical dogma. “God has a plan for everyone,” is another. “We are all spiritually connected and one with the universe,” is another.
And here is one of my all time favorites, “We all live in a matrix-like, computer-generated virtual reality and none of what we see it actually real.” Face it, regardless of your argument to the contrary, all that you say simply reinforces it. If I try to point out that there’s no actual substantiation for the idea that this is a super-realistic form of virtual reality, you can easily reply, “Yeah, because the machines programmed it that way.” You either accept it as your truth or you don’t. It is exactly the same with all magical dogmas.
Magical dogmas are pervasive in our culture and they guide much of what we feel and think about what happens around us. Some say that you get what you deserve, and if things don’t work out, it’s because you’re lazy or stupid or not applying yourself. Others believe people suffer as a result of karma, i.e., what goes around comes around and it’s everywhere you will ever be. You can find the belief that people suffer because humans are bad and God punishes us for not living a right life, and while these are all common, everyday magical dogmas, they have very real consequences on our lives.
Magical dogmas are pervasive
in our culture and they
guide much of what we feel and think
about what happens around us.
Take your everyday political beliefs. People on the left tend to believe that people are inherently incapable, and that they need the care and tending of an enlightened leadership class who will care for, and make sure that their lives go as the national plan intends. People on the right, however, tend to believe that people are inherently self- sufficient and that the government need only level the playing field and get out of the way. I won’t even get into the Libertarians or the other fringe groups and their beliefs, but it works the same there, too.
As a kind of collective Rorschach test, magical dogmas explain why groups with diametrically opposed points of view can see or experience the same event and both believe that it supports their position rather than the opposing one. One person sees the homeless under the interstate and sees oppressed and victimized members of our society. Another person sees the very same homeless people and sees slackers who haven given up and deserve the life they’ve ‘brought upon themselves.’ Because magical dogmas can explain all experience, all experience, therefore, reinforces the magical dogma. There is no possibility for a negotiated middle ground.
Magical dogmas can be nonthreatening (“Everything happens for a reason”), valuable, (“All knowledge must be verified and tested to be believed”), compassionate, (“The meaning of life is to ease human suffering”), or monstrous, (“Death to all non-believers”).
You might think otherwise, but be aware that you carry magical dogmas with you all the time. They are the foundations upon which your understanding of the world is built. As a result, magical dogmas can be terribly difficult to recognize. Heck, they feel so clearly correct to you that you never question them. Why would you? They are true for everyone.
Over time though, you’ll notice—particularly at election time—your magical dogmas, and the magical dogmas of your friends, poking up their nasty heads, disrupting sensible conversations, putting roadblocks up to any reasonable discourse or development. It is primarily during those moments where magical dogmas emerge, and the point of this whole article is to say that they must be challenged.
Because magical dogmas
can explain all experience,
all experience, therefore,
reinforces the magical dogma.
When people do horrifying things, they don’t do it because they’re unsure of themselves or consider that they are wrong or impaired in some way. It’s just the opposite. People who do terrible things most often do them because they are confident in their own ethical or moral supremacy. They are confident that they are right and you are wrong that they feel justified in imposing their own beliefs on you through force. Wasn’t it Mao who famously said, “Power comes through the barrel of a gun”?
Whether we’re talking about Hitler, Mao, the World Trade Centers, a bar, or restaurant in Paris, or honor killing a Afghan woman in Detroit for showing any of her body in public, people who do these horrific things do them because they are certain in their own moral superiority, and that self-same moral superiority is usually the product of some magical dogma that indeed, cannot be confirmed or fundamentally questioned.
Adolph Hitler took people in desperate starving situations and people with serious mental illnesses and convinced them to buy into the magical dogma that Aryans were the super race, and his way—the Nazi way—was their only path to salvation. From there, as with most charismatic leaders, it was uphill at first and then all downhill. Once followers buy into that initial magical dogmas, convincing them to give away their judgment, disown their neighbors, or even to round Jews and ship them off to camps for execution, feels like a no-brainer to them.
The Only True Belief
At the risk of making you laugh, I will now state an axiom; the only true magical dogma is that no magical dogma is entirely true. That is it. The only certainty is that things are rarely certain…ever. And if you doubt that assertion, check with a really good surgeon.
The reason that this the only “safe” magical dogma is that it acts as a limit on your capacity to drive your convictions onto others, while concurrently always leaving you open to new ideas. It makes you less of a jerk and allows you to remain open to dealing with the challenges of life in a realistic and authentic way.
You hear and read a lot of claptrap about being “sure” of yourself. You have been told, even by me from time to time, that you need to have faith in yourself and your ideas. These clichés are usually restated in an effort to encourage folks to feel more confidence in their abilities to work through a plan. Worried about your performance at work? You muster up some assurance that you really are a cold-calling tyrannosaurus. Start to feel uncomfortable with how your relationship is working out, you fall back on the old “everything happens for a reason” magical dogma to feel a bit more at ease about the situation. After all, they cheated on you first.
Magical dogmas relieve much of the anxiety caused by never knowing just how things will turn out. That is the good side of them, but the dark side is that they do so by guiding you to buy into paradigms that can lead to the Dark Side.
As a coach, I have noticed that in our “feel good” way of living, many of us have forgotten a fundamental truth—anxiety is useful. Actually it is critical to our survival as a species.
Anxiety evolved right along with us to protect us from doing stupid things that got some of us killed. See a lion in the jungle? You get anxious. There’s a reason for that. Having come out of the heart of Africa, had humans been casual about the presence of lions in the neighborhood, you might not be reading this.
Anxiety is intended to alert us that we are about to do something stupid, or that our present location has become dangerous. When you doubt yourself, you feel similarly generated anxiety. Doubting yourself forces you to recognize that you may be trusting in something unwise, and it just might get you (or your tribe) killed as well. Yet, instead of facing your anxieties, and becoming comfortable with your doubts, the cultural elite decided instead to get rid of the anxiety and be as certain in our ill-considered ideas as we can.
To a point, doubt is healthy. Doubt, up to the moment of commitment, is a virtue. Just like resistance training breaks down muscle to make stronger muscles, it’s the same with doubt. When you allow yourself to doubt your own ideas and beliefs, you make yourself stronger in the knowledge that you investigated and understand them.
Faith; think about it. You simply can’t have faith without doubt. Doubt is absolutely required to test one’s faith and in the end, make it stronger. There can never be true confidence without some level of doubt. Without doubt, there really is nothing to endure. You will never have a brilliant idea without doubt, as doubt and criticism and yes, that enemy of success, i.e., failure, is what slowly chisels away at mediocre idea turning it into the brilliant success you dream of.
It is OK to cultivate doubt in your life. It’s perfectly normal to be a little unsure. Do you see it yet? Being unsure leads to challenging, discerning, erudition, and refining. It leads to discourse, broad-mindedness and approval and the rest of the things that make modern society easier to tolerate. Doubt makes you more resilient. And if handled correctly, it should make you more curious, and maybe even a little smarter.
With all that is going on in the world today, doubt is more important than ever. With our attention being vied for at every turn, we have less time and mind available for each issue we encounter. The glut of information and contrary information available, not to mention news and fake news, and how easily the internet lets us surround ourselves with only like-minded people, our ability to hold onto doubt will become, an asset for 21st-century society. It will differentiate people who are able to think critically and synthesize information, from those who will always lash out and go with the day’s biggest information development.
In the end though, it will differentiate people who can chart their own courses in a sea of opportunity and miasma of information, from those who drown in unthinking noise.
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Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.