I used to be very sure of myself concerning every problem that the television, newspapers, and magazines told me was plaguing my region, country, or species at any given time. I used to act as if I believed…to be honest, I actually think I did believe… that if I were given power over mankind, all of its problems would be solved, if not instantly, then pretty quickly; no mistakes, no learning curve, I would get it all right the first time with no important errors to speak of. Basically, though I didn't realize it at the time, in my mind I was someone with the wisdom of a God, tragically (for the world’s sake) trapped in a mortal man’s relatively powerless frame. So, of course, anyone who disagreed with me about any of the important issues of the day was a target for my ridicule and scorn.
Eventually, thanks to my study of literature and philosophy (and of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and yogic philosophy in particular) I started to force myself to reflect on how many times in the past I'd been flat out wrong about very important matters when the facts were right before my eyes (failed romantic relationships were, and continue to be, an inexhaustible gold-mine here). And I began to see that, even if I happened to be right about the solution to some pressing global problem or other difficult question involving millions of people and centuries of time, which I’d only really heard about on TV and in random articles I come across written by people I didn't know, and which I didn't read all that carefully anyway and which may, for all I know, be riddled with errors …that even if I was correct about how to solve such a problem, I certainly wasn’t entitled to any certainty. And, of course, I was thus even less entitled to deride, ridicule and curse at those who disagreed with me. Thanks to philosophy, I learned, not only that my certainty was undeserved, but also that I needed to actively counteract it.
Along the way, something else became clear to me: namely, that if you want to convince someone they're wrong about something, short of insulting their mother or some other beloved object, the absolute worst thing you can do is to insult their position or selves. But then, what was I doing all those times when I, some two-legged mammal whose senses aren’t even 100 percent reliable within a ten-foot radius of his body and who's made countless blunders about the most important and basic matters staring him in the face… what was a creature such as I doing as I sat and judged others’ opinions concerning literally the very genesis, nature, and fate of mankind...judged them as if I were a jealous and vain God?!? I thought I was doing something grand and ultra-rational “participating in a debate of the most urgent importance and furthering the interests of my side” or some such thing. But in reality, I had discovered that, all those times I felt inclined to vociferously deride someone or thing I disagreed with, I was really doing something quite different, something more akin to one angry dog barking at another. But, of course, the comparison is insulting to dogs, since an angry dog never does what I did -- he never makes himself ridiculous by imagining that he has the knowledge of a God, or by mistaking the violence emerging from his mouth for rational discourse.
I can't say that I've entirely erased this tendency towards an ugly kind of certainty, but it's nowhere near as bad as it used to be. Nowadays, when my head starts going in that direction, I notice it pretty quickly and start the process of counteracting it -- I remind myself of how small and fallible I am, so that I can get back to that state of humility without which reason is impossible. I may not yet have the dignity of an angry dog, but I'm working on it.