When I was 16 I had an embarrassing experience that at once humiliated me and taught me an invaluable lesson. I was in my first ever sociology class at college and the lecturer had asked a simple question: ‘How long can a man survive without food and water?’ Without thinking, I instinctively and proudly blurted out the answer: ’40 days and nights!’ I declared.
Before the words had even finished leaving my mouth, I had an awful feeling that something strange and terrible had just happened. Years of religious indoctrination that I thought I had battled my whole life to successfully repel had indeed penetrated my thoughts and being at a fundamental level after all.
Stories about Jesus on an epic desert mind-bender had somehow got muddled up with what I thought I knew about survival. Humiliated by my completely factless answer, I realised with a crunching and disheartening feeling of dread that I couldn’t trust my own mind.
To his credit my lecturer’s ploy had worked, his point had been made, and in a subtle way my life and how I consider myself would never be the same. I felt a lot of shame that day in class as I so nakedly revealed to my cohort the extent of my religious conditioning. These days I’m grateful for the lesson I received though, for it highlighted how easily we humans have a capacity for absorbing and communicating bullshit.
‘Question everything’, my lecturer later said—and these words have never left me, as pertinent now as they were then.
For those of us interested in discovering what life is really about, there is much to question. Government propaganda, mainstream and alternative news providers, inescapable, omnipresent and manipulative advertising, PR campaigns, supermarket shelves, laws and rules, religious and new age thinking, science, popular cultural values, social norms, education, childhood upbringings and more, all convey messages that influence our thoughts and behaviour, and all implicitly or explicitly provide instructions for how to live.
The cultural and institutional structures that shape our world tell a narrative we could take as the truth if we chose not to question everything.
As a result of this conditioning, our minds are a quagmire of deeply held assumptions about the way things are, that may or may not correspond with ‘reality’, whatever that is. There’s a lot out there to question, and even more to distract us from doing so. But if we want to live lives that are a product, at least to a degree, of freethinking and autonomous decisions, we have to take this journey.
If we’re trying to work out how life might look if we could discard the myriad ways we’ve been conditioned, if we want to live lives that are real and meaningful we must be prepared to consider the possibility that everything we know is wrong. In fact, I would suggest, this is a pretty good place to start.