There’s only one requirement that must be met in order to fully enjoy any magic show, circus side act or film. And it has nothing to do with popcorn. Commonly referred to as ‘suspension of disbelief’, it refers to a willingness (often unconscious) to suspend your critical thought in order to accept something unbelievable, incredible or jarring. If absent, it’s impossible to enjoy a superhero flick or an enactment of war when you are keenly aware that most of the special effects are often in direct violation of the laws of physics and biology. Stephen Chow receiving a punch that knocks him back 20 meters and leaves him slightly bruised, would in reality, outright kill anyone instantly. Clearly, a key part of immersion is just letting go and not dwelling on the absurd – a profound statement that acutely exemplifies how we live in society. Living well and finding meaning in life is directly dependent on how much you are able to suspend your disbelief. Because social and cultural norms often do not make sense.
A simple example to start things off is how we perceive national service and war. Whether it’s necessary self-defense or justified invasions, war still amounts to nothing more than state sanctioned mass murder, with national service being a pivotal moment to stamp out any lingering ability to reason or doubt. Most military training rely on instincts rather than reason, simply because thinking can indeed get you killed very fast on the battlefield, but combined with patriotism and a belief that the side you are on is either that of the victim or hero, you soon find few qualms in holding down the trigger of a machine-gun. However, as All Quiet on the Western Front poignantly illustrates in a touching narrative, our enemies are every bit as human as we are. Is it then not disturbing that medals of honor are given out as an achievement count for each dead body you leave on the battlefield? But few will ever see it this way, with a majority believing that service and dying for the country is one of the highest honor ever attainable. To effectively fight on the front-line and to partake in national security, you must suspend your disbelief: the sniper who bags fifty victims is a revered war hero while the guy who smokes drugs secretly at the back of your neighborhood finds himself sentenced to years of imprisonment.
Even eating, the simplest of daily affairs also requires disbelief, but this is one we are so practiced in that it’s almost scary. Our appetite for food is so great that we give out Michelin stars to designate culinary prowess, and write up recommendations on blogs and videos to celebrate the rich diversity of cosmopolitan food. Yet, from the perspective of the creatures we are devouring, there’s something disgustingly sick when we excitedly talk about the countless ways to prepare their meat, ranging from braising to filleting, or the expert techniques of separating organs from flesh with a knife. Even as our molars grind away at the meat, and as our forks and spoons make short work of the food in front of us, we merely laugh away with our friends without the slightest sense of guilt. However, if the tables were turned on us, and human beings could be prepared a hundred different ways for a bountiful feast, and if you had to watch your mother have her organs eviscerated and bones forcefully removed in order to make meat patty, wouldn’t you feel absolute horror and fear? You might ask how is it that these slaughterers can still smile, laugh and talk without feeling any remorse? But isn’t that what we already do? In this, we have suspended our disbelief so expertly that food is an art onto itself, and saying anything less would only elicit hard stares from everyone.
And when you consider the scope of the visible universe, much of it still unknown to us, it is so infinitely huge that in cosmic terms, Earth is only a speck of dust. There are planets and stars so far and so bizarre (and also so huge) that even if you could travel at the speed of light (approximately 300,000 km/s which means light travels around Earth 7.5 times in one second) you would still take tens of thousands, if not millions, of light years to reach. Even if Earth ceased to exist, not even the slightest of ripples will be felt in the universe. What we do and who we are is of such supreme unimportance that we may as well not have existed. Here is where suspension of disbelief kicks in, for without it, life is ultimately truly meaningless. Using man-made belief systems like religions and cults, we make ourselves more important than we have any right being, and try to forget how isolated and meager we are in the eyes of the grand cosmos. From Susanoo the Japanese wind God to Shiva the Hindu Destroyer, these religious beliefs are now incorporated within cultural norms. Is it true that ringing the bell helps to ward ghosts away? Does a lion dance promote prosperity or can Fengshui’s harmonisation of Ying and Yang help your mental well-being? Nope, they are all total rubbish, convenient myths built to give false purpose and distinction in their respective societies, and while we have valid grounds to reject them, to do so is to be an outcast or to be branded a mentally ill person. Suspension of disbelief is once again necessary.
And even love which most consider unique to the human species, is only meaningful when you are willing to ignore many of the unhappy (and unavoidable) realities of its true nature. Ever watched a nature documentary of birds courting each other? Human beings do the same, except instead of brightly plumed feathers, we sport various clothing, makeup and hair styles. Like animals who use all manners of showy displays for courtship, we reply on language, music and intelligence to win desired partners over. And whether you are male or female, both genders are armed with various tools of sexuality in order to manipulate, charm or control each other – we flirt, gossip, test waters and play coy. And in the animal kingdom, alpha males – those who possess a universally prized quality – easily have hundreds of females in their harems, again no different from say, Wilt Chamberlain, one of the best basketball players who admitted in his autobiography that he bedded more than 20,000 women, claiming that his tremendous fame meant many women were happy to throw themselves at him. Towards the end, though he admitted having only one woman would have been more satisfying, it still doesn’t change the way we are wired: love is not really anything special but an evolutionary directive (one that you have no control over) to reproduce optimally and secure your genes for the next generation. Failure to suspend your disbelief here means love is nothing more than a shallow mating game. Maybe it is.
Though there are many more examples to be had, the question must be asked: Can we truly reject all social and cultural norms? The short answer, and maybe the only answer is no. To do so would be to foray into some degree of nihilism – the belief that no principles are meaningful or true. As it is, simply rejecting some social constructs will already make integration into society extremely difficult. Imagine if everyone is singing a school song and you recognise this process for the artificial sense of identity it’s meant to foster. Once you no longer suspend your disbelief, it’s hard to be enthusiastic about anything else that follows. Even if we can accept that we are living in a smokescreen, there are definitely times, especially when we are feeling dejected, that we notice what we do might be far less noble and far less meaningful than we otherwise assume. In the end, life’s nothing but a grand illusion, right?
So have you thought about (HYTA) whether we can reject social and cultural norms?