Ring Out, Wild Bells! (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 8 January 2017


After the US election, I was looking for something to read — some sort of distraction from my obsessive watching and reading of the daily news. I’ve always enjoyed the work of science fiction writer Robert Sawyer. After all, he’s a Canadian author who tends to promote a hopeful, positive view of the future of humanity. So I picked up his latest book, Quantum Night, just published this past year, thinking this would be exactly the escape I needed from reality.

If you know Robert Sawyer, you know he does a lot of scientific research and likes to grapple with big, existential questions. He’s not the most poetic writer, but what he lacks in style he makes up in imagination. In Quantum Night, he explores a creative relationship between psychology and quantum physics as he considers the existence of evil and the nature of consciousness.

I was already hooked when the fictional but Trump-like character of Quinton Carroway was introduced as the sociopathic president of the United States. So much for my escape. Justin Trudeau and Vladimir Putin also appear in the story, along with Naheed Nenshi, the current and first Muslim mayor of Calgary. The year is 2020, and Sawyer has cast Nenshi as the leader of the NDP and the new prime minister of Canada.

Sawyer says that he wrote the book to prove to that he is not naively caught up in hopeful fantasy, that he too recognizes the dire situation the world is currently facing. He thought it would be interesting to contrast a Muslim-hating US president with a Muslim Canadian prime minister. But his real goal was to show that human nature can change.

The book’s protagonist is a psychologist who has developed a simple test to identify sociopaths, or psychopaths. He says these two words mean the same thing.  That is: “an individual devoid of empathy and conscience who doesn’t feel for other people — someone who only cares about their own self-interest.”

As the book goes on we learn that there are three types of people in the world: philosophical zombies, psychopaths and people with a conscience. The philosophical zombies are, by far, the largest group. (It’s an unfortunately strong label, but it’s a term based on the actual work of Australian philosopher David Chalmers.) These are people who live their lives without ever paying attention, the way you can walk or drive a car from point A to point B without realizing how you got there. “The lights are on, but nobody’s home.” These are individuals who can be kind and harmless, but they have no inner voice, no ongoing inner monologue or conscience talking to them. So they need others to follow, others to show them what to do in the world.

This is the book’s big question: Who will the zombies follow?

Well, they can either follow the psychopaths, or the people in the third group. The third group are the people whose minds are “firing on all cylinders.” They are “normal, fully conscious human beings.” They have inner voices that give them the ability to reflect on themselves. They can actually think about whether what they’re doing is right or wrong. In other words, these are people who are conscious with a conscience. They are the minority in the world.

Remember, this is science fiction that is stretching beyond scientific truth to entertain and to make a point. Are the majority of people in the world really unconscious without any conscience? That’s an unproven theory, but it is a theory — one that I dearly hope is wrong, but one that I sometimes fear is true.

A bit of a spoiler alert here. At the end of the book, Canada is nearly annexed by the US and the US and Russia are about to fire nuclear weapons at each other. It is bleak. But quantum physics saves the day by shifting everyone’s consciousness.

You’ll have to read the book to find out how that happens. But let’s just say, hallelujah, everyone’s innate human nature is changed — even the psychopathic nature of the US president and Vladimir Putin. If you are a quantum physicist here, please get to work!

No, I didn’t find much relief reading this book, but it did get me thinking once again about the concept of human nature — is it fixed or is it changeable? Like Robert Sawyer, I want the world to know that we are capable of change.

Are we going to walk around like zombies this next year? Are we going to let social discourse be shortened to the length of a tweet? Or are we going to stand up, listen to our inner voices, find our consciousness and our consciences? Are we going to resist simplification? Are we going to fight for radical inclusion? Are we going to fight to save this planet? Are we going to call out lies and hold up truth?

We’re told that this is the time of year to make resolutions to face the resistance in our lives — our resistance to taking better care of ourselves, eating healthier, exercising more, doing the things we promised ourselves we would do last year, but never got around to doing. Those are all good things to think about. We do need to let go of the constant stress we can feel about the smallest things. We do need to keep ourselves from falling apart when the larger global context truly overwhelms us.

I know I resist in good ways and bad ways all the time. I resist making the small changes in my routine that would make my life less stressful. I can resist new ideas. Yet, sometimes, I resist the hopelessness that is welling up inside of me and I take steps forward to resist apathy and cynicism.

I think of the electrical current that would burn everything in its path without resistance. I think ofresistance training and how you have to learn how to carry the load. You need to build up strength, whether you need emotional or physical muscles for change, or whether you need to empower careful thinking that enables you to slow down enough to make wise choices, that will keep you from burning out and keep us all alive.

Maybe some of us have stronger inner voices. Maybe those voices can be too loud or too painful sometimes. Maybe many of us need role models who can lead the way in resistance and carry us forward into change.

I think about the work we did around reconciliation last year. It helped to be together, to reach out to make connections with the Indigenous community. And then we lose steam, so we have to push each other to keep this work in the forefront. But, I’m still proud to be somewhere that has begun this work, even if it is woefully incomplete.

I think about our conversation about divestment from fossil fuels. I know that what we do can only represent the tiniest drop in a giant bucket, but I share the concern that we have to take a stand somewhere. 

I think about the two immigration narratives I was hearing this past year. My compatriots in the US were hearing constant, hateful invective against immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, while here in Canada we were hearing the stories of individuals and groups reaching out to sponsor refugees. What a blessing to have had a steady diet of news stories that showcased human goodness.

If people’s views can shift towards hatred, they can also shift towards love.

That’s why we have to ring out those wild bells, loud and clear.
Ring out wild bells, to the wild, wild sky,
the flying cloud, the frosty light:
the year is dying in the night;
ring out, wild bells, and let it die… 

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
the civic slander and the spite;
ring in the love of truth and right;
ring in the common love of good.
                                    — Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1850

None of us can do this alone. May we encourage each other to let go of our resistance to change. May we stand in resistance to the slander and spite, calling for the truth and the right, reminding each other to keep ringing in the common love of good.

I will keep reminding you. Please keep reminding me.

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