I believe in the goodness of dogs … among other things.

I believe in the goodness of dogs. I also believe in the power of kindness. And the wisdom of compassion. I believe in bare feet, and sneezes that make me laugh, and gentleness, and bees, messy hair, muddy footprints, birds with perfect pitch, the influence of full moons, the safety in holding hands.

I hadn’t intended to make a list of things I believe in. But I was asked this question following a presentation I made recently relative to one of my books. The actual question posed was: “What do you believe?” And it was a faith-based question. My response was quick and also faith-based. I answered simply: “I believe God is present in all things.”

But the question stayed with me for days. It poked into the corners of my mind. It creaked into some of the backrooms of my consciousness and sort of kicked stuff around. It even shifted back and forth between: “What do you believe?” and “What do you believe in?” (A subtle yet rather significant difference.)

It was not long into this introspection that my memory brought back a passage from a book I had been reading a short time ago. The story was set in the late 1920s and ‘30s, among the wealthy and privileged of the world. One character, a woman, was speaking about a dinner party she had attended, and how she had turned to the stranger seated next to her and asked – according to the custom of the day and her society – “And what sort of things are you interested in?”

This intrigued me, and seemed a delightful change from today’s standard: “What do you do (for a living, implied)?” or even “Where are you from (in today’s highly mobile society)?” And I tucked it away to pull out at future dinner parties I might attend myself: “What sort of things are you interested in?” How much more compelling a way this would be to engage a stranger in conversation. How much more lively and involving would the answers likely be. How much more insightful and connecting, I thought.

Now, however, I am wondering what it would be like to ask: “And what sort of things do you believe in?”

Scientists say that believing involves many parts of the mind and body (they used to think there was just one spot in the brain dedicated to it). And, they say, “belief” is fluid and ever-growing, changing, maturing. Research is finding that belief is highly experiential, based in childhood, influenced by what we’re told as well as what we witness. I found it oddly reassuring to learn that our personal beliefs apparently can’t be bought for any amount of money. And yet, we hold the power to revoke one of our own beliefs at will, at any given moment. Or we may form a new one just as promptly, with just the beat of a heart.

It seems the strength of our beliefs can affect every aspect of our being – from our outward behavior to the individual cells within us. Our beliefs not only influence how we act, but they can actually keep us healthy or make us sick. Our beliefs help us love, and they let us break our hearts. What we believe brings us together, and it divides us. It sees beauty in places others do not, it considers possibilities, it shapes our dreams while we sleep, it makes our decisions, tastes our food, and raises our children.

This question, “What do you believe?” spoke deeply to me. In response, I started a list, and I seem to add to it daily. So you might want to be careful if you sit next to me at a dinner party sometime. I’m quite likely to ask this very question of you.