Notes From Home: Beliefs & Knowledge

Trudy Wischemann

One of the most distressing things about our current life here in America, at least to me, is our division over what is truth.

Every Easter we Christian believers are reminded that the only answer to the question “What is truth?” is bloodied muteness, especially when it is asked by an unfeeling tyrant in power serving a faraway empire. Unfortunately we Christian believers have a wide-ranging set of answers to the question, some of which set us against each other. Among non-believers, truth is just as elusive. Truth is, holding beliefs as truths can start wars.

I had a friend in Davis who helped me start to think about truths. His name was Darryl Babe Wilson, and he was an emerging writer from the Pit River Tribe in northern California. Darryl had a little streak of coyote in him and he held many of us in awe, but mostly for his wisdom.

One day Darryl and I met for coffee in a pancake house over by the tracks. I was frazzled that day, and when he asked how I was, I said “Darryl, I feel like I’m about to go over the edge.” That seemed to amuse him a little, but sympathetically he reached across the table, put his hand on top of mine and said “Trudy—there is no edge.”

I hope that makes you laugh as hard as it did me, and still does. I mean, it’s been 529 years since Columbus sailed the ocean blue and proved the world isn’t flat, but round. When he left port, there were a whole lotta people who believed he would sail off the edge of the world. When he came back with goodies from a magical place, that was pretty much the end of the “world is flat” belief. Yet the belief in an edge we can fall off of still invades our thinking.

In that same café conversation, Darryl made a distinction between beliefs and knowledge that also has proven helpful to me. “Beliefs can be changed,” he said with a grin, “but not what you know.” Darryl had spent most of his life telling white folks about the beliefs and knowledge of his people, which helped white people start to see the distinctions in our own culture. Getting to know Darryl was a growth in knowledge for me.

Truth is, Columbus didn’t prove the world was round. That’s what we were taught in grade school, but all Columbus really proved is that there was no edge between Portugal and the Bahamas. I don’t know when it was actually proven that the world is round (approximately); was it Magellan who sailed completely around the globe? What’s important here, I think, is the truth that it’s much harder to prove something is true than to disprove something, to prove something is false. But as we all know, too: old beliefs die hard.

I think we choose what to believe. Sometimes what we believe is shaped by the facts we’ve been taught or have learned through experience; sometimes not so much. Sometimes what we believe is shaped unconsciously by what we’re afraid to know. Sometimes we choose what to believe by choosing whom to believe, or whom not to believe. And sometimes our belief systems get cast in stone by the dominance of one person or a group of people who hold power and refuse to give it up, even when knowledge starts to mount up against those beliefs.

Our current time is not unprecedented: it’s a repeat of history many times over. There are things we could learn from history, or not. All I know is that we have a huge task before us, and I hope we find ways to respond—before war breaks out.

Trudy Wischemann is a neophyte believer who writes. You can send her your belief/knowing sortings c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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