Dance as if no one were watching (goes the old proverb, printed on T-shirts and refrigerator magnets everywhere); sing as if no one were listening; love as if you’ve never been hurt; live every day as if it were your last. It’s a cliché with a fundamental and appealing underlying truth — that we should seek to embody what we wish to make real — and it’s been expressed in many ways. Writers and actors talk about pretending to be competent at what they do, until they find that they actually are. Gandhi supposedly said “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” although his more nuanced and complex statement was actually this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
Christopher Hitchens, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, called this approach to the world “living ‘as if’.” Perhaps this year, in the spirit of Gandhi (and of Occupy Wall Street), we should take the idea of living “as if” out of the purely personal realm of “self-actualization” and apply it to as much of our community as we can. Hitchens wrote:
Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realised that “resistance” in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the Central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living “as if” he were a citizen of a free society, “as if” lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, “as if” his government had actually signed (which it actually had) the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic “The Power of the Powerless” because, even when disagreement can be almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid. You can’t achieve 100 percent control over humans, and if you could, you could not go on doing so. […]
The “People Power” movement of 1989, when whole populations brought down their absurd rulers by an exercise of arms-folding and sarcasm, had its origins partly in the Philippines in 1985, when the dictator Marcos called an opportunist “snap election” and the voters decided to take him seriously. They acted “as if” the vote were free and fair, and made it so. […]
One could add further examples. In the late Victorian period, Oscar Wilde — master of the pose but not a mere poseur — decided to live and act “as if” moral hypocrisy were not regnant. In the Deep South in the early 1960s, Rosa Parks (after some arduous dress rehearsals of her own) decided to act “as if” a hardworking black woman could sit down on a bus at the end of the day’s labor. In Moscow in the 1970s, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn resolved to write “as if” an individual scholar could investigate the history of his own country, and publish his findings. They all, by behaving literally, acted ironically. In each case, as we know now, the authorities were forced first to act crassly and then to look crass, and eventually to fall victim to stern verdicts from posterity. […]
All I can recommend, therefore […] is that you try to cultivate some of this attitude. In an average day, you may well be confronted with some species of bullying or bigotry, some ill-phrased appeal to the general will, or some petty abuse of authority. If you have a political loyalty, you may be offered a shady reason for agreeing to a lie or a half-truth that serves some short-term purpose. Everybody devises tactics for getting through such moments; try behaving “as if” they need not be tolerated and are not inevitable.
Live as if you’re a free citizen. Call out prejudice and unreason as if they deserve to be ridiculed. Vote as if your voice matters. Because this is all true, if we all make it true.
Peace, courage, joy, and Happy New Year.
(Photo by Ted Soqui)