Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Necessity of Belief

How necessary is it for us to believe in something?

Is that something a specific end or is it more like a process? What is more important—that we believe in the right thing or that we believe?

These were the questions asked on the final exam in my American literature class. What follows consists mostly of my in class essay, but also additions I made subsequent to the final exam. The rephrasing and additions were made to improve the clarity of this essay.

The Necessity of Belief
Before I can explore these questions through American literature, I feel that a couple questions must be answered. The first question—how necessary?—leads to another question: what is necessary? Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “necessary” as: absolutely needed, required. For the purposes of this discussion, I will ask: is belief necessary for emotional well being and/or for physical well being? In other words, is belief required for a person’s emotional and physical well being?

The second question is: what is belief? Wikipedia says, “Belief is usually defined as a conviction to the truth of a proposition.” In a casual sense, one might say, “I believe I will go shopping tomorrow.” In this discussion, belief most likely adheres to a meaning along the lines of “Mental acceptance of a claim as truth” (Wiktionary). To accept something as truth, one must first have a basis for determining truth.

Belief is necessary for both emotional and physical well being, as I will explain later on. This explanation leads us to the answer of the last question: what is more important—that we believe in the right thing, or that we believe?

I will explore these questions through three stories: Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), “The Awakening,” (Kate Chopin) and “The Open Boat” (Stephen Crane).

Let’s examine the stories. Huck Finn spends the entire story trying to find a moral philosophy. He struggles with what society calls right and how that plays out in reality. “I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing…I was full of trouble…and didn’t know what to do.” Huck is struggling with belief and how to determine what is true. Even at the end of the book, Huck never gets the answer to his questions. His feeling of hopelessness is expressed when he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” When Huck didn’t know what to think, what to believe in, what to accept as true, he felt much inner conflict and frustration. One can see from this story that belief was necessary for Huck’s emotional well being.

Edna, in “The Awakening,” also seeks meaning, significance, which are, more or less, a type of belief. The quote that best sums this up in the story says, “There were days when she was unhappy, she did not know why. .when it did not seem worthwhile to be glad or sorry, to be alive or dead.” Belief indicates that a person has something to stand on, and the reader can see that Edna does not know what she stands on. Edna doesn’t believe (at least on the basis of her actions) in marital fidelity.

At one point in the story, she speaks of life as simply an endless drivel. She does not know what is significant, or who is significant. Her dissatisfaction with her empty married life leads Edna into adultery. However, she doesn’t find meaning in life even while pursuing someone she thinks she loves.

In fact, the book says, “Despondency had come upon her there in the wakeful night, and had never lifted…There was no human being whom she wanted near her except Robert; and she even realized that the day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone.” Edna never finds life’s significance, her emotional well being rapidly deteriorates, and she dies. In this story, belief was important for both emotional and physical well being.

In “The Open Boat,” the men in the boat become more frantic as the situation becomes more desperate. They are in the midst of a horrible storm. These men question whomever is in charge of the situation—the seven mad gods or Fate. One man asks, “If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of men’s fortunes.” Unlike the other stories aforementioned, the men in the boat arrive with a belief. They believe in the seven mad gods or Fate. Yet, not only does their emotional well being deteriorate as their beliefs—gods and Fate—fail them, but their physical well being also suffers. In fact, their gods (or Fate), their beliefs, don’t save them.
To be continued...

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