Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass
“Everything has to be possible.” – Johann Sebastian Bach
About a month ago, I was chatting with a friend at church, who I’ll call Ken (not his real name.) We were discussing environmental activism: in particular, the Alberta tar sands and the devastating effect that they would have on our climate if fully developed. Ken has been a long-standing activist working to help provide clean water, medical care and education to children in less affluent countries, so he’s certainly no naysaying cynic. But even he felt that some missions were impossible. “They’re going to be developed,” he flatly stated. “It’s just going to happen.”
My immediate reaction was quite a visceral one; I wanted to shout back, “Whose side are you on anyway?” Instead I talked a bit about how the Keystone XL project had been delayed due to immense public pressure. (In the meantime Enbridge, facing opposition from environmental and Native groups to their planned Northern Gateway pipeline, has launched a massive on- and off-line ad blitz to convince Canadians that this is a Good Idea. If Enbridge is spending vast amounts of money to promote their project, apparently they – at any rate – don’t think it’s inevitable!) But he wasn’t convinced, and reiterated his statement: Alberta’s bitumen deposits were going to be developed.
“I refuse to believe that,” I returned heatedly.
“Why?” he asked.
“I can’t afford to incapacitate myself as an activist. If I think the goal is impossible, then why would I work to try to achieve it? I’d totally lose hope, just give up.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that the campaigns against them are pointless,” he hastened to explain. “They may accomplish quite a bit – for example, raising public awareness of the larger issues. Even having a small impact can be worthwhile.”
This reminded me of the oft-quoted starfish parable, though the metaphor wasn’t really applicable here. In Ken’s own work, helping even one child get food or education was a worthwhile goal. But what good was simply “raising public awareness” if it didn’t translate into higher-level political action towards saving our climate from a global meltdown?
In the days that followed, I kept thinking about my reaction: “Whose side are you on anyway?” Why had I immediately seen Ken’s statement as dangerous, emotionally toxic – even, on some level, a betrayal?
The answer, I think, has to do with belief and the central role it plays in activism – a role which needs to be more widely recognized and utilized by activists themselves. Susan Griffin tells a compelling story about belief and hope in her article “Can the Imagination Save Us?“:
I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man’s palm.
Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.
As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination…And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.
In our modern, scientific worldview, we tend to think of belief as being flimsy, dispensable, even worthless. The real world is “out there”, after all: objectively observable and utterly independent of our personal beliefs. Right?
Well, that may be the default, “common sense” way we perceive the world. But most evidence indicates, on the contrary, that belief is a powerful force. In medicine, the placebo effect can often have a powerful effect on our body’s internal systems, mimicking the effects of potent drugs. Mysticism and quantum mechanics suggest our beliefs may even affect the “external”, physical world. But it is certainly the case for human systems – governments, corporations, and countries – since it is only we who give them existence. We are not passive observers, helplessly shunted around by vast mechanistic systems over which we have no influence. Rather, we collectively create the systems which drive our daily lives by individually participating in, supporting, or modifying them – ultimately, by our affirmation or denial of their validity.
A good example is money:
Money is nothing more than a piece of paper stamped with a particular number showing the amount it represents – or, today, a few electronic pulses stored in a computer server. Surely neither of these has any intrinsic value. When we say we have strong confidence in a particular currency, we mean not the physical pieces of paper or electronic signals we exchange, but rather in the institutions – the governments and banks – that issue and store it for us.
If I am a money trader, every time I invest in a currency – say, the Canadian dollar – I am implying that I BELIEVE in the value of that currency. In other words, I have faith in the strength of the Canadian economy and in its government. By selling my investment, I am implying I no longer have the same belief that the Canadian dollar is a strong currency. If enough of my fellow investors notice my actions and follow suit, my belief will spread; it may even trigger a mass sell-off of the currency, which will plummet in value and hurt the country’s economy! This is known as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”; the very fact of my belief has helped to make my belief a true one. The same thing happens when the people of a country (as in the revolutions of last year’s Arab Spring) collectively lose belief in the capability or right of a regime to govern. The regime, which seemed so vast and monolithic, fragments and collapses…because the belief which had sustained it is now gone.
The oil-centered system currently threatening our planet, and all its manifestations – including the oil-friendly Harper administration running Canada – are not immutable or invincible, any more than the regimes overthrown by the Arab Spring. Human beings created them, and human beings can change them. If all Canadians believed that the tar sands should not be further developed, and descended en masse upon the oil fields of Alberta to physically block TransCanada and Enbridge from reaching them, then I can guarantee you the tar sands would remain untouched. 😀 On the other hand, if all Canadians agreed that the tar sands should be developed, then the pipelines would probably already have been built. (The actual outcome will probably fall somewhere between those two extremes; but where is entirely up to us.)
“The tar sands will be developed” is an extremely destructive statement. Just by uttering and believing it, one is abdicating one’s own power to actively create our world’s future – and willingly handing over that power to Enbridge and TransCanada. A corporation is not some all-powerful god; it doesn’t even have a physical form. Like money, it exists as signatures on paper, shareholders in board meetings and bits in computer servers.
And what about our government – the Harper government, so intent on destroying our country’s environment and the world’s climate? It is our government. We elected it, and we can unelect it in three years’ time, and in the meantime we, Canadians, can make it clear to Harper that he needs to represent our views on this issue, not our own. Any government, corporation, or other legal entity exists and continues to function only by the collective will and belief of its people. For this reason it is essential that we do not give the enemy (and by this I don’t mean individuals, but the collective forces trying to destroy our environment) our implicit assent by believing their victory is “inevitable.” Such a self-fulfilling prophecy plays right into their hands; we’ve given away the game before it even began, conceded the war before a single shot was fired.
There was a time, after all, when an end to slavery seemed “impossible.”
Later, there was a time when an end to segregation and apartheid seemed “impossible.”
There was a time when it seemed “impossible” that women would ever get the vote.
Or gay couples get the right to marry.
Or that laws would be passed protecting children from hard labor in factories, or ensuring they could go to school – for free.
And I could go on, and on, and on. None of these gains just fell into the human race’s lap. They were all hard-fought victories – fought, and eventually won, by people who believed the “impossible” was possible. And because they believed it…it became reality.
Please do me a personal favor today…humor me. 😉 Go and believe six impossible things before breakfast. (Or dinner, or whenever you happen to be reading this blog.) Six things you wish were different about your own life, or society, or the world – I don’t care which. Six missions you think are totally, absolutely, fundamentally IMPOSSIBLE.
Then believe them. Consciously and deliberately. And help to make the impossible, possible.
…You’ll be happy you did. 🙂
– The Contrapuntal Platypus