Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
– The Princess Bride
When the Inconceivable Happens
In 2014, we marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To those who were born later, it is hard to convey how earth-shattering this was. The fall of “the Wall” was one of those events that profoundly changed my conception of the world. Growing up, as I did, in the Midwest in the 1980s, there were certain things I knew to be true:
- The United States was destined to reach the stars.
- The Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, with whom we would forever be locked in a stalemate.
- The Republican Party had the best plan for keeping America economically and militarily successful.
- I was safe in my home because the continental United States would never be attacked.
Each of these myths was ultimately undermined by an event in my lifetime:
- The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 began to undermine my faith in the myth of technological progress.
- The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR in 1989, breaking the stalemate between the USSR and the USA, which had previously been inconceivable because it implied nuclear war.
- The defeat of incumbent George Bush I in the 1992 election.
- The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
Of course, each of these seemingly unprecedented events had their precedents. There were many disasters in the history of the U.S. space program, perhaps most notably Apollo 1 in 1967. The fall of the USSR, while apparently a surprise to the CIA, should not have been a surprise to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the history of empires. My own experience of the peaceful end of the Reagan era hardly compared with the Watergate scandal which my parents lived through. And the attack of the World Trade Center surely was no more shocking to me than Pearl Harbor was to my grandparents.
My parents’ generation experienced similar paradigm shattering experiences, including the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the assassination of Kennedy. For my grandparents, it was the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust. I think we all must grow up thinking that certain things could never happen … until they do. Thinking back, humanity seems to be plagued by events which, at the time, seemed inconceivable.
Many of these events caused people to question the existence of a just God, from the Black Death in the 14th century, which killed a third of Europe’s population and over half of the population in cities like Paris, Florence, and London, to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which registered an 8.5-9.0 and killed people as they sat in church on the morning of All Saints’ Day, to the trench warfare of WWI, which created a generation of atheists.
On the flip side, there have been world-shattering changes for the better. For people in the South, living in the first half of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement was probably inconceivable. My parents joined the Mormon church the same year that the church hierarchy decided to grant priesthood privileges to Black males (1978) … something which some people (including a previous Mormon prophet) had said wouldnever happen. People are saying the same thing about Mormon women and the priesthood now, but “the times are a changing.” The success of the same-sex marriage rights movement is another recent example. I didn’t think I would live to see that particular historical arc curve toward justice, but I am glad I did.
The Myth That Things Will Always Be This Way
It is easy to live under the illusion that things are the way they always have been and they will always be the way they are now. But there really is no excuse for this kind of failure of imagination, at least among adults. This is true on both the personal level, as we contemplate our individual deaths, and on the collective level, as we contemplate the future of our society and our species.
Every adult person should realize that, one day, the United States will no longer exist. No doubt this would be considered unpatriotic heresy by many people, but it seems an inevitable conclusion looking at the political history of the world. What’s more, one day, human beings will no longer exist. … Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. One day, no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light, we will not be…