The death of cell researcher and humanist Lewis Wolpert, in January 2021 from Covid complications, brought to mind his fascinating excursion into human belief – the book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
(WW Norton, 2006). The title comes, as so many do, from Lewis Carroll: where the Queen tells Alice that 'sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast'.
Alice has her doubts: 'There's no use trying… one can't believe impossible things'. Oh yes, it is, says the Queen, and says so. Still Alice remains unconvinced: 'I can't believe that!' I've got the dialogue from back to front in order to make a point: that once someone believes they've sorted out what they believe, it's hard to change their mind. Doubly hard if what they believe is impossible because telling them so piles anger on ignorance.
Alice's dilemma is complex: she refuses to believe what she regards as impossible, and also refuses to believe that being asked to believe something impossible is likely to change her mind. The Queen (who is not to be ignored) is posing the question that Alice could and would, but presenting Alice with a further dilemma: even if she did believe something impossible, it might not last beyond the bacon and eggs.
Re-reading Spencer Johnson's bestseller Who Stole My Cheese?
(1998) and his posthumous sequel Out of the Maze
(Vermillion, 2018) – he died in 2017 – reminded me that this is a dilemma we share with Alice. Both books are fables about the choices we make, in life and at work. Both are bestsellers, popular with general readers and managers. And both challenge us to reflect on the choices we make.
The metaphor is that of a maze. Two Littlepeople, Haw and Hem, are trapped inside it, trying to get out but, while they are there, reliant on regular supplies of cheese. One day, the cheese supply dries up. Haw goes off into the maze in search of new cheese, while Hem stays put grumbling that it's the end of the world and getting hungrier and hungrier. He believes that he is entitled to the cheese, it is his right to be supplied with cheese, and there is no other food. The cheese supply chain has dried up. The metaphor grows wider: for cheese read salary, security, community, what we've always thought and done, mindset and cultural framework. Change hurts because it disturbs.
Who Moved My Cheese?
is about how we deal with change. Out of the Maze
suggests the tools we might use to make the change. Eventually, Hem goes off in search of Haw and some cheese, meets a lass called Hope, and comes to realise that what he believes is not necessarily true, and you don't have to believe everything you think. This transformation enables him to take action.
Top-and-tailed by a business seminar, Out of the Maze
shifts the metaphor out into the real world of life and work. Are we trapped in a maze, as if we're characters in The Truman Show
, or is there a way out? For many trapped in poverty, loneliness or depression, there seems none. The online economy has changed business models and personal lives, enabling many but disenfranchising others.
This explains in part why Spencer Johnson's books have sold so well. Johnson himself was a writer and surgeon, co-author with Ken Blanchard of the One Minute
series of management books, and author of the Value Tales
series for children (biographies of people like Pasteur and Schweitzer, Confucius and Hans Christian Andersen).
His maze books show just how many readers look for reassurance in their lives, but at the same time like the advice packaged in ways that are not preachy or condescending.
Yet there are times when the beliefs, and beliefs about beliefs, we have are based on false evidence and assumptions – are, in fact, plain impossible. We can think of historical examples – when theories about geology and evolution began to contest traditional religion in the past (and still do, as we see from creationism and intelligent design).
Today, we have the advance of robotics in industry, genetics in medicine, and now the challenge of climate change. Change, then, on a social and cultural level, like Kuhnian revolutions in the conception and purpose of science, and on a personal level as we face change in our own lives.
Back in the maze, which Hem at first sees as a dangerous place, forcing him to change his ways, he starts to think the impossible – that there might be things to eat other than cheese, apples, for example; that if he went searching he might find new cheese; that there were opportunities as well as threats out there. He 'mans up' and finds freedom. It takes guts to leave old ways of thinking and doing behind. What seems impossible turns into the normal. Some of the best ideas, best friendships and best opportunities might exist in the dark corners and blind alleys of the maze, ones we've refused to investigate before.
If all this was put across as a speech or a sermon, most of us would find it patronising. Expressed as a fable, it takes on an open-minded porous tone, giving us space and time to enter into its ideas and advice in our own way. Fables usually simplify – think Aesop, Andersen's Emperor's New Clothes
, The Little Prince
, even Animal Farm
– but do it for good reason, and they stay firm in the memory, their message pulsating.
And yet… and yet. While the Queen insists that believing six impossible things before breakfast is entirely possible, even desirable and even if we end rejecting every one of them, there still remains a real problem. It is that there are many Hems in the world, unable or unwilling to change, loaded down with the baggage of the past, of miseries and misunderstandings, feelings of paranoia, and a determination to subscribe to ideas and worldviews that are false but believed to be true.
We might even say that, in some cases, it is impossible to get someone, who believes the impossible is true, to change their minds and see it as false. Some Hems refuse the idea of new cheese, refuse to believe that the supplier of the cheese (who by definition lives outside the maze and may well be regarded as a possible creator of it, cheese and all) is no more, and refuse to accept the idea that mazes could have evolved for themselves, like the cosmos, rather than having been 'created' by some Prime Mover.
Wolpert was well-known for his scepticism about the claims of traditional religion, which as some see it asks us to believe in far more than six impossible things, and not only before breakfast but for the rest of the day, week, month, year, into an afterlife or rebirth. Not for nothing did theologian John Selby Spong consider this set of challenges for the Hems in the world, in his book, Unbelievable
. Generously and contradictorily, after pondering things impossible like the virgin birth and the resurrection, he still held on. But to what?
For most UK humanists, such an outcome would be a form of intellectual muddle, agnosticism-lite. It implies an unwillingness to get out of the maze, to accommodate an objective view of reality, to break free from a subjective emotion-centred spirituality. As Spencer Johnson says, 'old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese'.
In the books, Hem goes exploring and grows up, but there are lots of Hems who would stay put hoping the maze (the world) might change, waiting for miracles and Second Comings, or (more modestly) trusting to human supermen like fascist leaders to gift them the utopia they desire, the happiness they believe they deserve.
Hem had a friend called Haw who ventured out into the maze, leaving messages behind to say where he'd been and what he'd learned. Again, the humanist in Wolpert might have argued that Haw, as a human being, stood on his own two feet and made what he could of the world. He might even have set up a small cheese-making business.
For, once we escape from the maze, we see how small and deformed it really is, and how small it made us when we chose to live inside it. Critics might say that Haw's cheese-making business is merely yet another propaganda machine, this time supplanting traditional scriptural teaching with an ideology of progress or human arrogance or speciesism.
This is a critique often made of humanism by the traditional 'church'. Yet, as Aesop told us in his fable of two men taking an ass to market, there is no pleasing everyone. Even if the doctrine of progress is hard work, and leads to some unforgiveable political decisions, at least it is not impossible. Unlike believing that some mysterious supply of cheese will start up once again.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a former chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School