The Most Important Belief You Can Have

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In the mid-19th century, a boy was born into a wealthy family. From the beginning, the boy suffered serious health issues: an eye problem that left him temporarily blinded as a child, a terrible stomach condition that forced him onto a strict diet, and back pains that would plague him throughout his life.

Despite his father’s disapproval, he aspired to become a painter when he grew up. He practiced his craft but for years and years, every attempt ended in failure. Meanwhile, his brother went on to become a world-renowned novelist. As he entered adulthood, many of his health problems worsened, his relationship with his father fell apart, and the young man began to struggle with severe bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts.

Desperate to fix his son’s situation, the young man’s father used his business connections to get the young man admitted to Harvard Medical School. Fortunately, the young man was smart. He could handle the coursework. But he never felt at home or at peace at Harvard. After touring a psychiatric facility one day, the young man mused in his diary that he felt he had more in common with the patients than the other doctors.

Dissatisfied with his medical training, the young man looked for other opportunities within academy that may have suited him. He was desperate. He was willing to try anything, even something radical and completely different.

He soon discovered an anthropological expedition to the Amazon rainforest. The young man signed on, excited to get away and start anew, to perhaps discover something new and interesting about the world and about himself.

In those days, intercontinental travel was long, complicated and dangerous. But the young man made it to the Amazon. There he promptly contracted smallpox and nearly died alone in the jungle. He was rushed back to civilization and the expedition left him behind. Upon recovering from smallpox, his back spasms returned worse than ever. He was emaciated from the disease, stuck in a foreign land alone with no way to communicate, and continued to exist in a daily excruciating pain.

The young man managed to return home to a disappointed father, nearly 30 years old, still unemployed, a failure at everything he had ever attempted, with a body that betrayed him and wasn’t likely to ever get better. Despite every advantage and opportunity he had been given in life, he had failed them all. The only constants in his life seemed to be suffering and disappointment. The man fell into a deep depression and planned to take his own life.

But first, he had an idea.

He made an agreement with himself. In his diary, he wrote that he would try an experiment. He would spend one entire year believing that he was 100% responsible for everything that occurred in his life, no matter what. During this period, he would do everything in his power to change his circumstances, no matter the outcome. If, he wrote, at the end of one year of taking responsibility for everything in his life and working to improve it, if nothing in his life had actually improved in that time, then it will be apparent that he was truly powerless to the circumstances around him. And then he would take his own life.

The young man’s name was William James, the father of American psychology and one of the most influential philosophers of the past 100 years. Of course, he wasn’t these things yet, but he would go on to become them in large part due to his experiment. James would later refer to his experiment as his “rebirth,” and would credit it with everything that he would later accomplish.

There is a realization from which all potential personal growth emerges. This is the realization that you are responsible for everything you do in your life, no matter the external circumstances.

In 1879, fifteen years after making the deal with himself, William James gave what was perhaps his most famous lecture, titled “The Will to Believe.”

In it, he argued that whether religious or atheist, capitalist or communist, everyone is forced to adopt values on some degree of faith. Even if you don’t believe in faith, that is itself a value requiring faith. He went on to say that if we all must value something, then we may as well orient ourselves to value what is most beneficial for us and others.

When we become responsible for our own values, we no longer have to struggle to make the world conform to our needs, rather we can adapt our own values to fit the circumstances that confront us in the world. 

It’s that simple choice to take responsibility for ourselves and our own values that allows us to feel in control of everything that happens to us and allows us to transform our negative experiences into empowering experiences. It’s completely counterintuitive, the idea that being responsible for all of the horrible misfortunes that befall us could somehow liberate us from them, but it’s true. Our responsibility for ourselves unleashes a deeper fulfillment by allowing us to construe whatever we confront into a value that fulfills our needs. Unruly kids grant us the opportunity to be a good parent and instill discipline and responsibility. A layoff at work grants us the opportunity to experiment with new career paths we had always daydreamed about. A terrible breakup gives us the chance to take an honest look at ourselves and how our behaviors affect our relationships with loved ones.

A woman's eyes
Image credit: Kamren B Photography

Yes, these experiences still hurt like a motherfucker. But negative experiences are part of life. The question is not whether or not we have them but what we do with them.

Responsibility allows us to leverage our pain for empowerment, to transmute our suffering into strength, our loss into opportunity.

James wasn’t dumb though. He knew that values require more than a simple choice to believe them. You don’t just wake up one day and decide, “I’m a happy, successful person!” and become it. Values must be cultivated, consciously tried and tested and steeled by experience. Values are worthless if they don’t contain some sort of real-world manifestation, some tangible benefit in the form of positive experience.

We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control a) how we interpret what happens to us, and b) how we respond to what happens to us. Therefore, whether we consciously recognize it or not, we are always responsible for our experiences. Choosing to not consciously interpret events in our lives is still an interpretation of the events of our lives. Choosing to not respond to the events in our lives is still a response to the events of our lives.

Whether we like it or not, we are always taking an active role in what is occurring with ourselves. We are always interpreting the meaning of every moment and every occurrence. We are always creating values for ourselves and others. And we are always choosing our actions based on those values. Always. Whether we realize it or not, we are already choosing our actions. We are already responsible for our negative experiences. We just aren’t always conscious of it.