Conviction: A double-edged sword
Annesha Banerjee believes that your conviction should be your life’s Rock of Gibraltar if it embraces inclusivity and is life-affirming. However, this very same desirable asset, if built on the sands of intolerance and discrimination, can wash away your life as well as those of others.
Conviction is a force multiplier. If you want something, claim it in your gut. The universe itself responds to your inner certainity.
The course of human life has changed and evolved over generations. The greatest of discoveries, inventions, art, literature, and movements, which now form the pivotal turning points of the modern world, were motivated by a strong belief and force of determination of a few select ones who trusted their thoughts and ideas, sought the truth and refused to accept the norm. Imagine, if Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle had accepted the idea that the Earth was flat! It was only because they didn’t submit to the widespread common belief (and were convinced, that the Earth was, in fact, a sphere) that they set out to bring a change in the mass belief by proving their theories right and expanding the understanding of the human race.
The Wright brothers’ first airplane flew on December 17, 1903. The idea of powered aviation was reasonably absurd during that time, but the intense desire of the two brothers, as fanatical as it seemed, was to find a way to make their vision possible. And so, after years of struggling and experimenting, they were successful in carrying out their first flight which lasted for 12 seconds and launched the world into the aviation age for good.
Juhi, a freelance graphic designer, was set to marry her boyfriend in a ceremonious event two years ago. It was during this time that she learned of his family asking for dowry. She wanted to discuss it with her fiancé, who she was sure would side with her against the practice. But, to her dismay, she soon realised that the guy was ready to bend to his family’s wishes to avoid a fuss. This revelation shook her. So, after a lot of tumultuous family discussions and arguments, she chose to keep her integrity and called off the wedding. “My family could have arranged for the dowry easily, but it wasn’t about the money as much as it was about my values and my stand against such an exploitative custom,” she said.
Aryan Mishra, a college student and aspiring scientist from Delhi, recently organised a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to buy smartphones for students who couldn’t afford it. “When I read about a school topper committing suicide because she couldn’t afford a laptop and hence study during these testing times of COVID-19, I was shocked. I have been there; I know what it feels like to be limited by your means, to be written off before even being given a chance,” he says. After gathering enough money to buy a dozen smartphones, he distributed them among such students. Aryan wanted to provide them with what he couldn’t have during his childhood.
What is consistent in these centuries, decades, and even months-old stories is the deep belief which these people nurtured and were convinced about as being worthy and virtuous. These events were rooted in their strong conviction which defined the course of their lives. One may wonder what the reason is for someone’s conviction, how far it can take them, and whether it is always a harbinger of good things and progress.
What is conviction
The Oxford dictionary defines ‘conviction’ as a firmly held belief or opinion, or the state of being convinced. Conviction exemplifies what we stand for and forms the core of who we are. Suzy Singh—international author, mental well-being coach, speaker, and YouTube EduMentor educator—elucidates, “Convictions arise from one’s own experiences and are, therefore, greatly coloured by individual perceptions. It is their very nature to be subjective and so are always perceived to be personal truths.”
However, having positive and healthy beliefs is preferred because they are in greater alignment with our soul qualities. When beliefs turn positive, there is a greater chance of us getting closer to our higher Self and flowering as human beings.
Conviction is a quality of the inner Self which leaps out of us, no matter how hard we try to suppress it. Conviction is a form of innate knowing which we possess, regardless of what we have been taught. For example, all blacks inherently know that they are equal to all other human beings present in the world, no matter how hard the whites try to convince them of their inferiority. It is this conviction which makes them revolt against injustice and discrimination, and force other races to introspect about their biases. People with conviction are changemakers and often leaders and pathfinders. No matter how hard people try to discourage them, they are convinced about the validity of their beliefs and act upon them. Greats like Simone De Beauvoir, M K Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Charles Darwin, Swami Vivekananda, and Joan of Arc changed the course of human history because of the conviction they had in the validity of their beliefs.
Sudha Murthy—famous author, social worker, and co-founder of Infosys—as a young engineering graduate, refused to silently accept a job advertisement by the Tatas because it said ‘Young energetic engineers required. Ladies need not apply.’ Instead, she courageously wrote a letter to JRD Tata, calling out the company for its regressive and discriminatory policies. As a result, not only was she called for the interview but was also appointed at a plant in Jamshedpur where no woman had ever worked before.
Sudha has been a leader and a trailblazer for many in Indian society through her humanitarian work and is an example of what people with conviction are able to achieve. Whenever she writes, she inspires, and whenever she speaks, people listen with rapt attention.
While making decisions, big or small, it is our conviction that determines the path we walk. Shivya Nath, a vegan solo traveller and digital nomad, at age 23, quit her corporate job with a dream of travelling around the globe. Leaving the comfort of a well-paying job was tough but it was difficult for her to tame her restless soul, so two years later, she packed her backpack and decided to hit the road indefinitely. Talking about her lifestyle, she says, “It feels rather surreal. Getting paid to travel sounds like a dream, but there’s a lot of hard work and discipline behind the scenes. It’s a life of many battles, and they’re worth fighting only if you’re really, truly passionate about travelling, getting to know people and places different from the ones you’re familiar with, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. I’d like to think that the one thing I did right was to never give up.”
We must thoroughly know that we are making the right decision because it will impact all aspects of our life. And it is the only thing that makes us rise above the mundane, manifest our dreams, and actuate outcomes that require extraordinary motivation and inner strength. Conviction in various areas of our lives helps us focus and concentrate on our goals. Conviction helps us to keep going because it is an extension of our core beliefs.
Suma Varughese says, “Having a deep conviction in something means you stand for something. It gives you a parameter on which to base your actions and, perhaps, even your identity. For instance, if you have a conviction that cheating is wrong, you will stay loyal to your partner. Your convictions can form the bedrock of your character and, over time, define your destiny. In comparison, a person who has no convictions has no anchor. They can drift through life never taking a stand—the perennial fence sitter. They can run the risk of being morally ambiguous or even opportunistic, favouring the side that will give them the best deal.”
Conviction: An emotion
Convictions represent our foundational beliefs that we hold dear, and they are powerful. When beliefs meet identity, we form a profound sense of attachment to them, and they acquire a sacred value. We hold on to them tightly or, rather, they hold us tightly in their grip. In a world that is ever-changing, personal convictions help us ground ourselves by reminding us of what we believe in and what is truly important to us. Such convictions anchor our lives.
Although convictions are personal and emerge from within, they can also be initiated by external circumstances. Numerous beliefs are passed on to us from our families and communities, which transmit many foundational ideas that shape our convictions. Group beliefs that are influenced by ideologies like ‘communism,’ ‘feminism,’ ‘capitalism,’ ‘liberalism,’ or ‘conservatism’ work their way into our psyche. Strong beliefs are a reflection of our identity, which is why they feel so convincing. And so, they can move us to action, propelling us to fight for the cause we believe in.
The flip side of conviction
However, there are an equal number of people who have been convinced about a certain fanatical idea and gone on to spread hate, unrest, and genocide, through the power of their incendiary speeches and violent actions.
Adolf Hitler would not have been able to helm the Holocaust had he not convinced the Germans of their racial superiority over others. Zealots like Osama Bin Laden and Al Baghdadi, and imperialists like Mussolini, British colonisers, Stalin, and Genghis Khan have wreaked untold suffering upon the world because of their conviction that others were inferior and deserved to be subjugated, looted, and suppressed.
Since it is easy to incite people by fanning their baser instincts, we find that hate speech delivered with passion finds more takers than talks of love and peace. So, how does one know that one’s conviction is right and will not become pernicious in the long run? According to Suma Varughese, “It is always advisable to hold one’s convictions loosely and to periodically air them as you would your silk sarees or suits. By this, I mean examine them thoroughly and see if they still resonate with you. Like the suit, there are chances that you may have outgrown them. If so, you need to discard them. The conviction ‘My religion is the only true one’ has probably killed more people in the course of human existence than all the wars put together.” Adamant conviction displays less openness to alternative ideas, does less critical reflection, and, therefore, has less accuracy. Failure to consider the range of well-argued possibilities leads to it. This means an inability to grow and evolve, and consider better and grander ideas.
Most people run their lives on beliefs which they have inherited from their society and environment. And they embrace them unconditionally without even checking how useful or effective they are in ensuring their growth as an individual. “My personal understanding is that if your convictions are based on an insight into some truths or come from a space higher than the ego-self, then they may be beneficial in nature,” suggests Suma. She adds, “The broader, more inclusive, and more accepting your perspective, the more likely it is to be true. Let us say that you operate from the conviction that Oneness is the truth of life. Not only is this borne out by all that we see in Nature, which is the living manifestation of the Divine Power, but it is the broadest and most inclusive understanding of life. Anyone who is on the spiritual path is already turning their focus inward and becoming more aware of how the ego is driving our behaviour, becoming more aware of the impact of ego on everything, including our belief system. So, an individual who is steadily willing to keep looking within and staying aware will, over time, recognise that their ego-based convictions are not valid because these have emerged from their need to feel good about themself. Convictions that do not emerge from a space of love and inclusivity have a chance of being wrong. Such convictions are also derived from ignorance.”
The clash of convictions
Conviction is a driving force and gives us a lot of grounding and confidence in ourselves. However, it can also become a source of friction in relationships if we are too obstinate about beliefs.
A few months ago, when a friendly discussion turned into a political debate, I found myself in the middle of a tug of war: one side being my friendship and the other, my ideologies. From sharing thoughts and instances to being rhetorical and having heated arguments, it all went downhill, and I began to feel drained and agitated at the mere thought of that person. I eventually realised that we were both firm believers in our respective truths and there was no middle-ground that we could reach. Therefore, not wanting to exert any more of my energy and for the sake of my peace of mind, I agreed to disagree. Convictions are supposed to be largely personal. What others have as their conviction need not be yours. As we grow and encounter other believers who have different convictions than ours, it becomes important to try to understand others’ ideas and let love rule—not every issue is black and white. Conceit is when we think that only our conviction is right.
This is a point of friction for many of us since a contradiction of our convictions can be interpreted as an attack on our selfhood, triggering the fight or flight mode.
When one is willing to listen and see through another’s point of view, we begin to understand their source of convictions. Narrow, restrictive, and exclusivist convictions are always derived from the ego. Because the ego’s great need is to be right. To be superior. The ego-self is insecure, needs to protect itself, and always operates from a ‘me vs them’ paradigm, giving rise to conflict at every level of society.
Conviction is characterised by its impregnability and can limit our potential and worldview. But compassion gives us the flexibility to understand even those who come from a space of narrow-minded convictions. Nelson Mandela, after he became the president of South Africa, refused to persecute the white supremacists even though all his life he had consistently fought against their beliefs of being racially superior to coloured people.
Stubbornness vs conviction
Our convictions challenge us—to give voice to our thoughts, to take action. At times, to act against our own self-interest, to put ourselves in harm’s way, physically and emotionally, in order to do what is right. However, we must never forget that true convictions offer certainty, not about the world, but about the morality of our own behaviour, which is consistent with our deeper values.
I know of a person who always desires to be right. In their professional and social circle, this tendency has proved to be highly useful. Not only has it led them to be at the top of their work but also has people turn to them for advice. But their stubborn need to be always right overrides their need to be kind when an argument takes place. Personal relationships are formed by love and nurtured by compassion, but when conviction compels us to stand our ground no matter what, we forget that the other person also might have some deep-seated beliefs and end up hurting their feelings and denting the relationship. As the American philosopher Dr Wayne W Dyer says, “If you have the choice between being right and being kind, choose being kind.”
Should convictions change?
Although convictions give us strength and confidence, if they have become outdated and newer realities are being presented before us, it’s only wise to upgrade them, or we will be left behind in the world. One may argue that the strength and unshakability of our convictions are what make us hold them in high regards and live by them. Making that very trait flexible will mean a betrayal of our own values. How is it okay to change them? Suma explains, “Because you see through it. When you see through something, then it doesn’t have a hold on you. It depends on the willingness to shift, change, look within, and be uncomfortable. If you are not willing to do that, then you don’t change your conviction. There are many people who don’t question their conviction because it is a part of their inheritance, a part of their cultural, religious, or spiritual heritage.”
During the course of our lives, we attach ourselves to various beliefs and try to function from those standpoints. But as a person grows and evolves, perception changes and so does their understanding. The more we come closer to the truth of life, the more we start seeing the bigger picture, and then it is a question of whether we want to venture into the uncomfortable to move closer to our higher Self.
Not long ago, the whole human race was convinced that the Earth was flat and was the centre of the solar system as our experience told us so. But more scientific research and evidence proved the opposite, and humanity had to agree that its perception was false. It is noteworthy that the presenters of this new fact had to face plenty of hostility and even persecution by the Catholic Church because the discovery contradicted the belief held sacred by it. Our tendency to cling to our beliefs may feel good as it supports the ego, but it doesn’t mean it’s in our best interest. Any strong conviction arrived at without examining it critically can unleash suffering on one and all.
We must recognise that every belief is subject to doubt. The Cornsweet Illusion, named after experimental psychologist Tom Cornsweet, displaystwo 3D blocks placed on top of each other, which seem to the onlookers to be of different shades of grey. But, as revealed, it isn’t so. By placing a finger along the line that joins the two blocks, it is clear that they are, in fact, the same colour. It is explained that when we look at something, we perceive its colour and shading in relation to other things in the area. This proves that we should suspend all our preconceptions. A better way to start is to question our beliefs. By doing so, we free our mind from conflict, achieve mental clarity, and stand with more confidence in our convictions, having deconstructed and constructed them ourselves. Consider this with goals as well. You have to be aware that there were other factors playing too for you, and it wasn’t solely your hard work that got you to your winning place. This helps us to stay humble and in gratitude.
Even so, there is a difference between shifting our convictions because one understands the larger scheme of things and doing so because of a lack of moral compass. One must not change one’s convictions based on popular beliefs or culture, without testing them on the parameters of morality and impartiality. But when a person moves from a half-truth to a larger truth, they make a seamless journey. It doesn’t account for a change in conviction but accepting the higher truth and submitting to it. This can only happen when we form our beliefs and convictions from a place of love and understanding, which is not only beneficial for oneself but also for those around us. We find that sincere science researchers easily move from one scientific fact to another greater one because they know how important it is to accept it if they wish to advance in their field. Sadly, this tendency is not visible in the rest of the human race which functions more from bias or bigotry rather than genuine inquiry.
Conviction of compassion
We have to be vigilant in ensuring that our convictions don’t fall into the category of dogmatism, fanaticism, and egocentrism. These tendencies are characterised by feelings of polarisation, judgement, and even hate for the contrarian view. The ability to impartially view our thoughts and feelings as they arise can help us recognise which space our convictions are coming from. Our convictions are our comfort zones, and it requires a higher degree of awareness to consider the validity of other viewpoints too. Trouble arises when we fail to recognise the humanness of those with views contrary to our own. However, the catch over here is that if we want to be understood by our opponents, we need to understand them too for this to happen.
While interacting with those having radically opposite views, we need to constantly remind ourselves that convictions are based on individual maturity, experience, and choice, and since we are all at differing levels of maturity, our personal convictions vary. Talking to people with different convictions than ours, or having wrong convictions, can be challenging, but it is our responsibility to stand up for love. Be kind, but speak up. What is important when confronting someone is creating a genuine interplay; we have to stay true to our convictions. Difficult conversations are transformative; we gain nothing from only speaking to those with whom we agree. We should be prepared to keep an open mind to different perceptions.
However, if a person is not willing to listen to reason, we must then compassionately conclude that they have not yet reached the space of being willing to change. It is not easy, but it has to be understood that free will is for everyone. You have to accept the other person as they are and allow that person to be while recognising that all of us have our own time to change and shift and grow. The more you resist them, the more they will persist with their viewpoints. In such cases, it is better to not enter into arguments.
Sharing an insight, which I resonated with, Suma says, “If yesterday, I was convinced that unethical behaviour is unacceptable, today, I might recognise that although it does not excuse them, people are driven by their conditioning, upbringing, and wounds, and cannot always act rightly. Thus, over time, your convictions become drawn from a more inclusive and compassionate space. One reason why people hold on to their conviction is that they don’t know who they are without it. And because it is connected to a person’s identity, giving up a conviction—even admitting that it might need some improvement—feels like an act of self-betrayal. But the evolving individual recognises that hanging on to stale convictions will cost them their evolution, their change. I think it comes from the willingness to be uncomfortable.”
How to root for conviction
Those who fight for equality and those who fight against it to establish supremacy are both people of convictions. They may have very different political, cultural, and religious orientations but are fundamentally alike. Both are motivated by deep conviction. The conviction ‘for’ and ‘against’ something differs subtly but greatly. When a conviction is ‘for’ something—the well-being of loved ones, justice, or fair treatment—it creates positive feelings of interest, passion, or joy, which tend to improve health and relationships. Whereas conviction ‘against’ something creates resentment. It foments feelings of anger, contempt, envy, or disgust, which have deleterious effects. Those who hate injustice want retribution and triumph, not fairness. Therefore, it is essential that we anchor our beliefs in something greater which is also morally inviolable. Otherwise, one’s actions, though well-meaning, might appear spiteful and vengeful to others. For example, the Naxalbari movement which started in West Bengal in 1967 to bring social justice to oppressed farmers soon turned into a violent, anti-establishment agitation which has taken almost 12,000 innocent lives so far through armed conflicts.
Our convictions are not always orderly. They can lead us into conflict with ourselves and others. Our tiny perspectives, limited to our immediate life, can blind us to the larger issues and make us susceptible to manipulation. And yet, our convictions can advance us both personally and collectively, and be a catalyst for positive change.
Conviction is all about understanding. The better the understanding, the deeper the conviction. It is the foundation of conscious living or being mindful. This is about self-awareness. Conviction is the path to seek the truth, uncover it, and pursue it. The path is hard, and it is for us to decide our true conviction and seek it.
The Isha Upanishad says: “He who perceives the Self everywhere never shrinks from anything, because, through his higher consciousness, he feels united with all life. When a man sees God in all beings and all beings in God, and also God dwelling in his own Soul, how can he hate any living thing? Grief and delusion rest upon a belief in diversity, which leads to competition and all forms of selfishness. With the realisation of oneness, the sense of diversity vanishes, and the cause of misery is removed.”
I believe that any conviction which is removed from this understanding of the absolute truth is bound to be deleterious. Therefore, before our convictions take hold of our lives, let’s examine them under the lens of fairness, impartiality, and their beneficiality for the whole of humankind.
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