Fire, so the story goes, was discovered by a man named Nour, who passed the knowledge on to three tribes, each of which responded differently to the new skill. Some embraced Nour and his fire, others were afraid and chased him away, and so he settled in a distant country, far away from the three tribes. Centuries later, a descendant of Nour traveled back to the old country, to see how the people has used the gift of fire.
At the first village, he found that fire-making was restricted to the priests, who kept the secret from the common people, using the power it gave to keep power over them. Nour’s descendant called the people together, saying: “Where I come from, making fire is not just for the priests, but for everyone. I know how to make fire, and I will anyone who wishes to learn.”
The people immediately shouted angrily: “Heretic! Blasphemer!” Nour’s descendant barely escaped with his life.
At the second village, he found that his ancestor and the fire-making tools were worshipped, but that no one knew how to use the tools, or anything about fire at all, and the people were cold and miserable. Again, he called the people together and said: “Know that my ancestor Nour, whom you worship, was just a man, like all of us. These artifacts on your altar are not sacred objects, but tools to make fire. See, I have tools here just like them, and I can show you how to make fire, which will keep you warm, light your houses at night, and make your food taste better.”
Or, he would have said that; he got halfway into the second sentence before he found himself running for his life again.
Arriving in the third village, Nour’s descendant saw that some people knew how to make fire, but there were many legends and superstitions surrounding fire, which were wildly inaccurate and conflicting. Those who could make fire often used the skill to profit from others, and not always honestly. Because of this, when he offered to show anyone who wished how to make fire, those without the skill immediately suspected him of being a confidence trickster, or were frightened of him because of the fire legends, and those who could make fire resented the competition. Even the honest fire-makers resisted, because public knowledge of fire-making would ruin them financially. Although not threatened with death this time, he soon realized that no one would listen to him, and so he left in despair.
When he returned to his own country, Nour’s descendant asked one of his aunts – a wise old woman – where he had gone wrong. “Why could I not teach the people of our ancestor’s country about fire?” he asked. “Why weren’t they willing to learn?”
The aunt nodded sagely. “My dear nephew,” she said, “most people aren’t really willing to learn. They might think that they are, but really, what they think they need to learn is only what they have decided are the things to learn. Before you can teach anyone anything, they must agree that what you have to teach is something that they wish to learn. And, most importantly, very few wish to learn something which contradicts what they already know.”
This tale of fire and learning has been adapted from an ancient Sufi tale, but the essential wisdom of healthy skepticism still holds true today: we cannot learn until we are willing to open our minds to new possibilities – especially the possibility that we still have something to learn.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about healthy skepticism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!