“I think I can, I think I can.”
It’s a phrase we all know far too well, whether we’re rounding the last bend of a race, learning how to ride a bike, or just trying to get that paper done at three o’clock in the morning. The Little Engine That Could taught us one of the first and most important lessons that children will learn in our society: Believe in yourself.
There exists a prevailing sentiment that in order to do well we must first believe that we can do well. We must first believe in our own potential, so much so that nothing else really matters on the road to its actualization. The short kid can play basketball, the inner city kid can get into Yale, and the kid with the speech impediment can grow up to be one of the greatest public speakers of all time. Who cares about reality? Just believe in yourself!
In his book Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton boldy refutes this commonly accepted idea. He even goes so far as to say that if you want to find men that truly believe in themselves you should look in the insane asylums. Hmm. Point taken.
But is it really? Sure, crazy people believe in themselves, but what makes them crazy is not that they believe, but rather that they are wrong in their belief, and, most importantly, incapable of recognizing it.
This scenario presents itself well in Book VII of Plato’s The Republic, in which he tells the Allegory of the Cave. It is the story of people who, being born into imprisonment, lived their lives knowing of nothing but the shadows on the cave wall. To them the shadows were not mere shades of reality…they were reality. That is until one of them, released and finally allowed to turn his head away from the wall, is able to see the actual reality behind the shadows.
“The glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?”
Yes, he will fancy the shadows. He will fancy the shadows over the fire that gave the light to produce them, over the actual figures which they represented, and when he leaves the cave he will fancy the shadows over the grass and the trees and the flowers. He will fancy the shadows over everything to which his eyes will remain closed, for the light of the sun will blind him. He will fancy the shadows, but only for a time. Eventually, his eyes will adjust, and he will see the sun, and by it everything else.
Perhaps he was insane to have believed in the shadows in the first place, but in what else could he have believed? The shadows on the cave wall were all that he knew. However, it was his very belief in the shadows that freed him to accept reality when it came. Had he doubted the shadows he would have doubted the sun, and never able to fully accept anything, he would wander aimlessly his whole life, searching for a truth in which he would never be able to believe. For the truth of the matter is that one can’t believe in anything unless they first trust themselves to believe it, and we must believe whole-heartedly even in our failures if we’re ever really going to succeed.
Chesterton’s point is well taken, and there is no question that we really must look outside of ourselves to find truth in this vast universe, but we must first trust in ourselves to recognize it when we see it.
So think highly of yourself, trust your instincts, and believe what you believe with all of your heart. But always remain humble and open. Never lose your faith in the sun, but never underestimate your distance from it, nor forget the possibility that you are still chained inside the cave, incapable of turning your head to see the fire and the figures which create the shadows you may call reality.