But it did happen
Reason only works in a reasonable world
There is a pivotal scene towards the end of Magnolia, where the seemingly impossible happens, a situation that leaves its characters confused and confounded. A camera shot shows the words written, ‘but it did happen’. These words, and that scene, capture the gap that can appear between experience and expectation, the space between beliefs about what can occur and what actually does eventuate. The unlikely and improbable can and do happen, and sometimes the impossible does as well. Finding space for comprehending these moments is vital. To borrow from Corinthians, we can only see ‘through a glass, darkly’; our capacity to understand the world is unavoidably limited and incomplete, but still we must find our way toward understanding.
People like patterns, and most of our lives generally tend to exhibit a degree of stability. For some, this can be positive, for others, less so. Regardless, our horizons of expectation remain rather settled. One consequence of this is we end up with rather restricted conceptions of possibility. Thomas Schelling noted, ‘the danger is in a poverty of expectations - a routine obsession with a few dangers that may be familiar rather than likely.’ He continued, ‘there is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.’ To this risk of confusing the familiar with the probable can be another shortcoming, one of failing to recognise what is new and different, and in doing so, being too quick to categorise novel phenomena within existing categories, and in the process, potentially misunderstand what is going on. Put differently, reality can outstrip our capacity to comprehend it. Certainly, a strong grasp of history will allow a recognition of common behaviours, patterns and dynamics that reoccur, albeit with varying accents and intonations. And yet, with each turn of the circle, these tendencies manifest themselves in different ways, with permutations of greater and lesser import. The pandemic cannot be thought of as a ‘black swan’ event, but the way it has unfolded has resulted in certain outcomes and dynamics that are both unfamiliar and improbable. From this, it is necessary to sort out what potentially is different or distinctive, places where the circle might be bending.
There are moments when an inability to appreciate the new goes beyond simply causing surprise or misfortune, and instead represents a more significant failure of imagination. This is something that Hannah Arendt notably explored in The Origins of Totalitarianism, proposing the advent of new form of regime that made ‘hideous discoveries in the realm of the possible’. As the book title implies, totalitarianism was not an event but a process, which included a period of probing the realm of the possible. The ‘dark times’ Arendt talked of were not the flicking of a switch, but a turning down of the dimmer. This fade to black was aided by what she described as a ‘common-sense disinclination to believe the monstrous’, which worked to reinforce a tendency to disbelieve that the improbable – and sometimes the impossible – does happen. Common sense is not well suited for the uncommon or the nonsensical. But as the boy Stanley reminds us in Magnolia, ‘this happens... this is something that happens.’
Where do these observations lead? Reason only works in a reasonable world. Sometimes impossible thinking is instead what is called for. When faced with a reality bending, the best response may be to bend with it.