February 6th, 2023

Good students suspend disbelief; great students suspend belief

In literature, we teach our students to suspend disbelief when they approach a work of fiction.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Biographia literaria or biographical sketches in of my literary life and opinions in 1817.

In it, he wrote this: “In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

When we watch a movie, a play or read a book, we for a time, suspend disbelief and accept it as a true story, allowing ourselves to become entranced by the story and  invested in the characters.

We know when someone has suspended disbelief in a film when he or she bursts into laughter or yells at a character for being such an idiot, or cries as a character faces a heart-wrenching truth — even though that truth is not really true.

Suspending disbelief allows the writer to enter into truths carried on the backs of the plot and characters of a story. Truths that literary geeks call themes — some simple and even cliche, others profound and thought provoking, such as a theme from Romeo and Juliet about how petty our disputes are when compared to the value of young lives.

These fictional stories often offer us a look into the possibilities of the world in which we live and a vast library of character sketches that could be a depiction of one’s boss or best friend, an ex-boyfriend or a new-found love, or of oneself.

These sketches can give us insight into ourselves and the people we encounter, even though they are fictional — and often, although fictional, characters are developed based on keen observations of human nature and interaction.

As important as it is for us to read stories imagined by others, it is equally important for us to read and listen to stories that are not fictional.

Sometimes these stories are told with facts and statistics, telling us the reasoning and evidence for evolution or creationism. Sometimes they are an eye witness account of an event such as a concert.

In some these situations, rather than suspend disbelief, we are called to suspend belief. This can be harder than chooseing to accept a falsehood as a truth for a short and foreseeable end. When we suspend belief, that means we must first be aware of what we do or do not believe. We must be willing to accept that there may be another perspective, equally valid and plausible.

We must bite our tongues and listen to what the other person has to say, and rather than challenge his or her views initially, we need to imagine how the person came to the perspective being shared.

This can be very difficult for me when I hear an argument for a perspective that seems far-fetched and ill-founded, but I think it is important to for us to listen to what others say and allow them to share their evidence.

That courtesy returned leads to a greater depth of understanding of any given subject matter because it expands one’s understanding of various real-world situations and people.

The person who regularly suspends disbelief enters the world of possibilities  — the world where the imagination is limited only by itself.

When we regularly suspend belief, we set aside our own beliefs and accept the beliefs of others as truths, and then we consider the possibilities that exist in our current reality.

The best students of life take life in on all levels, absorbing the variety of ways that people see the world in which they live, and allowing themselves to either continue in an original belief or adjust it.

One of the issues with our country today is a refusal to suspend belief as we interact with one another when making policies, laws, or even familial decisions.

We must be open to other views and reflect on what is best for individuals and the group.

To do otherwise shows a willful ignorance that contradicts everything our democratic republic stands for and could lead to greater strife.

West River Eagle