If you had to choose, would you say that the world is a good and safe place or a bad and dangerous place? You might respond, “It depends on the circumstances,” and that is no doubt (sometimes) true, but go deeper — to your core or “primal” belief.

That was the question posed by Hidden Brain last Sunday, the NPR show hosted by Shankar Vedantam, which replaced On Being last year. Each week, I’m becoming more and more of a fan of Hidden Brain.

Sunday’s episode, “How Your Beliefs Shape Reality,” was particularly good. Psychologist Jer Clifton, Vedantam’s guest, posited the intriguing notion that our beliefs about the world are not forged by our experiences so much as our “primal beliefs” determine how we interpret those experiences. If our primal belief is that the world is basically a good and a safe place, we will likely find positives in even the most difficult circumstances (as indicated by the testimony of concentration camp survivors). If our primal belief is that the world is a bad and dangerous place, on the other hand, it will color or call into question our interpretation of even the most positive life experiences.

It’s not that people who think the world is good don’t recognize, and aren’t unsettled by, the bad in life (and vice versa). It’s more that our primal belief ultimately prevails, often in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Are positive, optimistic people unrealistic, looking at the world naively through “rose-colored glasses”? And are the negative, pessimistic people incapable of seeing the beautiful side of life?

It’s not that simple. I’m aware of both sides active within me at various times and in various settings. I veer negative when I’m driving, for instance. Often I also see the dark side in our political situation and grow pessimistic about our prospects for saving the Earth. Those who read my column on a regular basis are aware of this, but you’ve probably also noticed that I wax almost ecstatically positive about other realms of life.

My hunch is that all of us are a mix, but that, thanks perhaps to our primal orientation, one side ultimately wins out. The old proverb about the two wolves inside each of us ultimately asks, “Which one wins?” The answer is, “The one you feed.” Which is true … to a point. In many, the negative wolf may be fundamentally stronger, but might we also have the capacity — through awareness and practice — to change our default setting and strengthen the positive wolf?

In some cases, we start out in life as a positive person. Traumatic suffering and dire disappointments may turn us negative, but not in every case and not necessarily forever. One person may encounter suffering and become a cynic, afraid to believe in the possibility of anything better. Another may be equally shocked by suffering and become the Buddha (or a bodhisattva), responding with compassion and becoming a better, fuller, more “evolved” human being who recognizes the interconnectedness of all living things.

Obviously, we need more of the latter if we’re going to save the Earth.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Research, by the way, according to Jer Clifton, indicates that those who see the world as (generally) a good and safe place tend to do better in life.

Recently, I attended a Zoom discussion with a group that meets to consider matters of faith. The topic was the theology/philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and scientist, who extended Darwin and developed a theory of spiritual evolution. He believed humanity is evolving toward an “omega point,” a remarkably positive, optimistic view, captured in the following grand, visionary passage:

“Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. Then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”

When I first came across that passage in college, it immediately appealed to the primal belief in me that humanity will prevail — not just surviving, but ascending to a higher level of consciousness.

Some may read that, roll their eyes, smirk and think, “Dream on,” and I most assuredly will, even as I cuss out other drivers and question their very character, despairing of humanity evolving, when I’m behind the wheel of a car. But I will also continue posing this question, probably a challenging question for a lot of people: “Do you believe that we (that you) are capable of spiritually evolving and that, as a species, we are capable of harnessing the energies of love and discovering something akin to a fire in our soul?”

And if you do believe that, then “How do we get there?”

Humanity’s survival very likely depends on how we answer those two questions.

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