A question that is often posed to me in various guises throughout my working day is “Do you believe….?” Before answering, I often seek to learn what is the motive behind the question. Is it that, “if you do, then I can’t possibly take you seriously ever again as it is so against my own beliefs“, or is that, “if you do, then you’ve affirmed my own position and thereby strengthened it“, or is it that, “I’d like to know so that I have some guidance for my own beliefs which are currently undeveloped“, or is it a question of genuine curiosity to learn of my aberrant perspective? It is a question where the poser places a responsibility on the one it is posed to.
I’ve never wanted to shape the thinking of my students but only to encourage the act itself – to think. Their questions, quite often are answered with more questions. “Is it possible that belief is the death of thought?” I cannot take credit for this, the response was stolen from Robert Anton Wilson:
“Belief is the death of intelligence” (Robert Anton Wilson in The Cosmic Trigger)
There are times when it is more difficult to objectify oneself in what is a social relationship which has taken time to establish and nurture. Following a session based on the science of precognition, a student shared a very personal account of her own experience of a close family relative’s precognition of his own death. Her disclosure led to the inevitable question, “Do you believe…?” Oh, the responsibility!
To say no, and offer an orthodox scientific explanation would have denied her of the truth of her own experience. To say yes, may have closed her off to thinking about the experience in a different way (which her course actually demands). To answer with the question, “Is it possible that belief is the death of thought?” would have been lacking in compassion and empathy.
What would you have answered?
The Beauty of Magic
I told her that I like to keep myself open to possibilities as there is so little that we fully understand. And to tell the truth, I like a little magic in my life, it makes it beautiful. She smiled and seemed satisfied with the answer and I got the sense, that she felt understood.
But I often feel inadequate in such circumstances. Introspective, I rarely verbalise the inner workings of my mind – a barrier to writing also. I want to say something more like:
“our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. “co-incidence” means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time…..
“Early in the novel [Anna Karenina] that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition – the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end – may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.
“They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
“It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty (itallics my own).” (Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being)
“The belief that time is a linear, directed sequence running from A to B is a modern illusion. In fact, it can also go from B to A, the effect producing the cause.” (Umberto Eco in Foucault’s Pendulum)
“What is life if not the shadow of a fleeting dream?” (Umberto Eco in Baudolino)
Although, I do admit, these might have seemed very strange to an 18 year old.
But as a side note, I have come to realise why I’ve been so scared to write – I keep reading the works of those who are the very best at it.