“I can’t believe you don’t believe in anything!” someone wrote on this blog a while back, commenting on my agnosticism (actually, she used capital letters and lots of exclamation marks, but I’ll refrain). And I was a bit shocked by that. What kind of human being can I claim to be if I don’t believe in anything? A nihilist? A god-forsaken creature left to the whims and mercies of fate? A craven whimpering coward afraid to commit herself?
So in between keeping up with what’s happening in Egypt and Tunisia and Bahrain and Yemen and Jordan and Iraq and Iran and oh-my-god Libya, I’ve been haunted by what she said — and have realized that she placed the stress on the wrong word. It doesn’t belong on the word ‘anything,’ but on the word before it: ‘in.’
Of course there are things I believe. I just don’t generally feel the need to believe in them. I may well believe that such-and-such a thing is true, though in fact this is much the same thing as saying “I think that…” or the more amorphous “I feel that…” and I’m trying not to be amorphous here. And in fact there are some things I do believe in, prime among them the possibility of some seemingly impossible form of peace between Israel and Palestine.
If I look at Israel/Palestine rationally right now, I see no way to a peaceful resolution. So in the lack of empirical evidence, I have no choice but to fall back on belief – that is, on the conviction that peace is possible, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I’m not being over-idealistic here. The first step in any thinking about peace is to get rid of all those images of doves fluttering around all over the place and everyone falling on each others’ shoulders in universal brother/sisterhood. Peace is far more mundane than that. It’s the absence of war. It’s people not being killed. It’s the willingness to live and let live. And that will do just fine.
There’s no love lost between England and Germany, for instance, but they’re at peace after two utterly devastating wars in the first half of the 20th century. There’s less than no love lost between Egypt and Israel – in fact it’s safe to say that for the most part, they detest each other — but that peace treaty, signed by an Egyptian dictator and an Israeli former terrorist, has lasted three decades. It’s nobody’s ideal of peace, but however uneasily, it’s held, and will likely hold whatever the changes in Egypt – a frigid kind of peace, but peace nonetheless.
But even thinking in terms of pragmatic, undramatic, boring peace, which once seemed as impossible for England and Germany, and for Egypt and Israel, as for Israel and Palestine, I still can’t see it. Of course this may simply mean that I have a very limited imagination, and so can’t see the forest for the trees. But to think that something is impossible because I can’t see it is not only an absurd assumption, but also a dangerous one.
What we believe affects how we act. If we stop believing that Israel/Palestine peace is possible, or even desirable, as the Israeli government seems to have done, then that affects how we act: we really do make it impossible. That is, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy of unending conflict. We act in our own worst interests.
I’d rather be naïve than nihilistic. So in face of the despair that often overtakes me at the latest news from Gaza or from the West Bank, I have to fall back on belief in the possibility of peace, no matter how seemingly irrational. After all, if it was rational, it wouldn’t require belief.
One definition of despair is in the inability to imagine oneself into the future. It is, in a very real sense, a failure of the imagination. So perhaps this is what belief really is: an act of imagination. The astonishing human ability to imagine something into existence, and to act in accordance with that imagination.
That’s what we’ve seen these past few weeks in Tunisia and Egypt and Bahrain (and maybe even in Libya), and that’s what’s been so inspiring about it: belief transformed into possibility. Belief not as faith in the divine, but as faith in the human ability to act and to change the future. Belief, that is, in ourselves.