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Peter Clothier

Peter Clothier

Posted: September 5, 2009 02:31 PM

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief


When Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined this richly associative phrase nearly two centuries ago he was talking, of course, about literature. Specifically, he wanted to justify his love of fantasy, arguing that "human interest and a semblance of truth" would serve to seduce the reader into an imaginative compact with the author. The thought came to mind this morning as I searched for a way to respond to yet another skeptical correspondent who demanded to know why he should continue to believe in the good faith of President Obama and his ability to enact significant health care reform.

Friends write to me to let me know of their distress. I get sometimes bitterly angry comments to my online posts. I read and hear what the left-wing prophets of doom assert: that Obama -- if he was really anything other than one more crass politician who deceived us into voting for him -- has already capitulated to the corporate oligarchy and the strident voices of the right. He should never have been so naïve as to put his faith in the mirage of bi-partisanship. He lacks strength and sense of purpose. He should have spoken out earlier and more forcefully. He should be out there, leading...

I know. I hear these things, and I share the deep and troubling concern that gives rise to them. There is a whole big part of me that is ready to give up on all of it; to abandon hope in the weak-kneed Democrats who lack the vision and the conviction to come up with a plan they can agree on; and, yes, to blame a President who at times seems aloof from the fray and disconnected from the people who placed their trust in him as the last great hope for change.

And yet... there are times when the willing suspension of disbelief seems appropriate and necessary, in order to remain true to my own commitment to do what I can do for my fellow-beings with whom I share this planet. I share the skepticism. Call it, perhaps, realism: the facts of this country's recent history and its current affairs speak loudly. Deadlock and acrimony confront us everywhere we look -- here in my own state, California, and in the nation's capital. We are addicted to the material comforts of our lives, to such well-being as each of us has attained; and despite the demand for change on the left side of our national discourse, it seems that great power still lies in the hands of those who are adamantly, fiercely resistant to it. We are like some old, weary Gulliver, unable to break free from the multiple bonds of the Lilliputians who hold us captive.

In this circumstance, one useful strategy that stands between me and despair is the willing suspension of disbelief. I realize that it's a choice: it's "willing." But for the sake of my own sanity in a political culture that my more rational self deems utterly deranged and utterly beyond redemption, I make the active choice, for now, to suspend my disbelief. The act falls short of actually believing. I hold on to a small mental space where I acknowledge it to be a matter of intellectual and emotional choice rather than rational conviction. But the choice is still an empowering one, requiring that I not sink back into inertia.

It's also a "suspension." The mind-space I'm attempting to describe is temporal and provisional. I find that by suspending my disbelief I can more easily watch and wait, and find the patience needed to allow change to happen and, insofar as I am able, to help it along the way. It provides me with a place from which I can continue to act, in the hope that we can still return to our senses as a country, and that we can collectively reconnect with traditional values like compassion and responsibility toward others as well as for ourselves, with a sense of common social purpose, and with that truly American vision of "a more perfect union" that Obama has publicly embraced.

Call me naïve. Okay. An idealist. I'd rather be an idealist than an ideologue. But I'm constitutionally and temperamentally averse to succumbing to the kind of inaction and despair I might find myself accepting if I chose to surrender my willing suspension of disbelief. I'll settle for "human interest and a semblance of truth." And for believing, passionately, that acting as if something were possible can be the catalyst to make it happen. This, at least, is the path I choose.