There are two kinds of missionaries. Those who inspire people through actions, and those who conspire to convince and proselytize.
Examples of the first are people like Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi. These missionaries are so grounded in their belief that they have no need to convince or convert another. They fully know who they are and what they are here to do.
Paradoxically, as a result, they inspire others to find out more, and eventually convert people into their way of living. Whether there is an overt declaration of that belief and whether there is the adoption of a particular set of dogma is quite irrelevant and immaterial.
The second kind of missionary is of a different breed. Their mission comes not from their faith, but from their doubt. They have the psychological need to convince others, because they themselves are not convinced of their belief.
Let us face it, if another person walks up to us and proclaims that there is no such thing as "air" or "atmosphere", and in fact none of us actually breath air in or out, do we start arguing with them?
The chances are that faced with such a one, we would simply nod our head and say, "very well. Thank you for the information."
Why do we not argue with them? Do we know for a fact that there is air? Are we sure that what we experience as inhalation and exhalation is the taking in of air? Or could it be something else? Or perhaps it is the motion that gives us the energy that we need, not the oxygen?
I am not here to argue for the non-existence of air. My point is that our conviction and belief in the existence of air is so strong that we never find ourselves have any urge to argue about it.
On the other hand, if a physicist comes and starts talking about a new form of quantum theory, those among us who are knowledgeable about this matter, may start discussing and perhaps arguing. The reason they are open to discussion is because their belief in the existing theory is not unshakable. There is room for doubt and change.
After a while, however, should the discussion take the form of an argument, then what it actually displays is a form of doubt on the part of both sides of the argument. The stronger the doubt, the stronger the need to convince the other. It is as if by convincing the other, we convince ourselves.
And there is always the psychological aspect of finding security in numbers. If I can convert a thousand people, then I must be doing something right. And if I convert a million, then I am definitely on the side of the right. How can one million people change their minds unless what they are embracing is right?
But the fact is no number will bring the conviction that I lack. Security can be provided in numbers, but doubt cannot dissolve.
So every time I come across a missionary who is preaching to me a way that I should embrace, I smile and ask myself, "do I have the urge to argue with this person? And if yes, what aspect of the discussion is the part that I find distasteful? Because that is where my own doubt lies."
A faithful missionary is all about action and living in accord with his or her belief. A doubting missionary is only concerned with changing another person's mind.
© Shahriar Shahriari
Los Angeles, CA
April 29, 2001
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