Where There’s a Will…

Delusional optimism has its perks.


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Back in June, when the sun was rising at 4:30 a.m. and setting after I went to sleep, I was having a little solstice dinner. It didn’t really feel like the summer solstice, even with the sun trying to rile you from bed at ungodly hours. Summer in Berlin is temperate and wet. There’s only one week or so that blazes through and leaves you gasping on your kitchen tile floor, or — like one pregnant woman in Germany — losing your shit on the un-air conditioned public train, taking off your shoe, and using it to pound through the window. But that never happens until mid-July. In June, you’re still wearing your leather jacket and you are able to do things like make a roast for the solstice and drink a Spanish red. And because there the sun feels vague rather than relentlessly mutating your skin cells into pre-cancerous mode, the thought hits you: “Fuck. It’s all downhill from here.”

  • Willing, Wanting, Waiting by Richard Holton. 184 pages. Oxford University Press. $45.95.

The summer solstice feels a little flimsy here, but Berlin’s winter solstice weighs on you like lead. Yesterday the sun was gone by 3:30 p.m. By 3:30, it was actually dark, not that the sky before then had been any more luminescent than concrete. But that is life in the Northern climes, and you have no way of knowing how it will affect you until you are in it. We started discussing ways to get through it back in August, when the temperature had dropped back down and the sun was rising at a reasonable time. We will meet regularly in the botanical gardens greenhouses, yes? And there are the baths and saunas, the Christmas markets with their booze stations and that disgusting leberkäse that I like so much, and don’t forget there’s that zeppelin hanger that some moron/genius turned into a water park. Eventually the city will empty, as everyone eventually gives up on trying to plow through the dark and buys airline tickets to Spain, Egypt, or Croatia.

Me, I’m taking a different tactic this year. I am reading books of alchemy and magic. I’ve lost all faith that the sun is just going to reappear, that it will make its way from where it’s now barely skimming the horizon back up into the sky. Because it’s been a long year of things that were supposed to come back, not coming back; of people who were supposed to stay, disappearing; and of people who were supposed to stay away suddenly running roughshod over everything. Now I have the primitive pagan fear that maybe this is the year the sun will decide to fuck off entirely. I am ready to sacrifice a she-goat on a golden altar if need be. I will get out my birch rod and hunt for wrens. Whatever it takes.

But here, back in post-Enlightenment reality, we don’t have alchemy, we have regimented scientific study, which is way less hopeful. There is a study quoted in Richard Holton’s philosophical work Willing, Wanting, Waiting regarding our beliefs about how much control we have over our world. In 1979, researchers strapped some people down in front of a button and a light. They were asked to see if they could control how frequently the light came on by pressing the button. The frequency, of course, was random. But people sat there pressing that button, trying to turn on the light. And when the light came on frequently — around 75 percent of the time — everyone thought it was due to their accomplishment. They were pleased, and they felt they had control. When the light was scarce, though — only flickering on one-quarter of the time — they could see that no matter how much they pressed that button, no matter how hard they held it down with their thumbs, they were not the ones controlling the light. The delusional participants, by the way, felt optimistic and powerful after the study. The others? Probably useless. Optimism is often mentioned as a necessary requirement for success — the delusion of authority somehow brings about authority. But what about those with the darkened lights who saw how random illumination can be? Their delusion would have to be more willful.

We all have years when the light just won’t come on, no matter how long we sit there pounding that button, long after the realization that it’s not even wired to the light and all we’re doing is bruising our hand. We are in the Wanting and Waiting section of Holton’s book, because we can’t will everything we want. We can’t will a loved one back from the dead, no matter what ancient spells we look up. We can’t will someone who doesn’t love us anymore to do so. We can’t will our bodies to create and hold life. Holton gives examples of the catastrophes we can find ourselves facing — a fallen tree blocking our exit, the possibility of a romantic affair that will probably lead to our ruin — that will require our intentions, our resolve, our will power. Even if it leads to the same result, maybe it’s better to the be the person who delusionally starts hacking at the tree with an axe, rather than the one who sees the futility of such action and sits on the tree to mope. We always root for the heroine to follow her heart and kiss the penniless suitor, knowing full well she’ll live a more comfortable life with the stiff widower who does not love her. We love the willful and the courageous, even when they’re charging towards their doom. It’s less fun, probably, to be the willful who suddenly realizes that god doesn’t always love the fool, that sometimes the fool steps off the edge of that cliff and is impaled on a tree branch below.

In another study quoted in the temptation chapter of Willing, Wanting, Waiting, children are split into two groups. Each group is told they are allowed to choose between marshmallows and chewing gum. Once they’ve made their choice, though, they are going to have to wait until the researcher comes back with the treat. One group is simply forced to wait, while the other is provided with a button that will bring the researcher back into the room early. When the researchers return, before the treats are doled out, the children are asked how much they value the candy they’ve chosen. The children forced to wait really like that candy. A whole lot. The kids who could have the marshmallows or chewing gum at any time just sort of valued the candy.

But what’s the difference between value and desperation? How many of those kids who really, really loved their marshmallows scarfed their delayed treats without tasting? How many got greedy because god only knows when there will be marshmallows again, or how long they’ll have to wait for it the next time? I wondered how I would feel about those marshmallows if I were sitting in that chair, without a button, even one that didn’t work. And would I “value” the marshmallows more than the leberkäse I have back home, would I rate it higher when asked by the researcher? Is there a kid over there with a button and a giant stash of candy who knows all about my fridge full of leberkäse and is envious of it? Or maybe I don’t value the leberkäse even though I like it, because other people think it’s disgusting and that it looks like you made a meatloaf with the insides of hot dogs.

Maybe that is why I am reading the alchemists, who had a lot of lead and wanted gold. They didn’t abandon the lead. They worked with it. They valued it for what it might lead to. If all they had was gold, maybe they’d be wondering how to turn it into lead, which does have some practical applications. The 16th-century alchemist Michael Maier wrote, “What is the meaning of the Sun without Shadow? The same as a clapper without a bell… the Sun is the tongue, the Shadow is the language.” Eventually scientists caught on to the fact that lead never turned into gold, and they turned alchemy into chemistry. And with that they created medicine and purified water supplies. And someone else used it to weaponize toxins and create food-like substances that fill our supermarkets and never expire but kill us very, very slowly.

Spend too much time pressing that button with no result, or waiting endlessly for marshmallows that may never come, and you might start to resemble yet another study — the one with the dog who is given so many electric shocks that when he’s finally offered a way to escape, he doesn’t believe it and just stays. How many times are you going to reach for that door before you think, “Ah, why bother?” It takes an act of will. William James, who knew a thing or two about scarcity, wrote after a very bad year, “I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will — ‘the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts’ — need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present — until next year — that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Just for one year. One doesn’t want to look foolish. But if I resolve to make the sun come back, and it does, then maybe I can have the swagger of the delusional optimists. • 15 December 2010