No, the title of this blog post is not a misprint. What did you read? Did you read “opportunity is nowhere” or did you read “opportunity is now here?”
In his book Developing Ecological Consciousness, Christopher Uhl points out that “if we see the world in a hopeless downward spiral then opportunity is indeed ‘nowhere.’”
It would be Pollyannaish to deny the immense problems the world faces today or to deny that coming years will bring many different, difficult challenges. Yet, how fast the world emerges from these difficult challenges depends upon how many of us are able to look beyond our old mental models and see new possibilities.
Robert Desnos was a French surrealistic poet. During World War II he was part of the French resistance. Captured by the Nazis in 1944, he was first deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally to Terezín (Theresienstadt) in occupied Czechoslovakia in 1945.
In her essay “To Love the Marigold,” which is contained in Paul Loeb’s anthology The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, Susan Griffin tells this powerful story about Desnos in Terezín:
Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck…Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is,…Desnos reads the man’s palm.
Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.
As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination…
Robert Desnos was famous for his belief in the imagination. He believed it could transform society. And what a wild leap this was, at the mouth of the gas chambers, to imagine a long life! In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS.
Desnos saved many lives that day with his ability to step outside of the existing boundaries. Yet the concentration camps took their toll on Desnos; just weeks after the camp was liberated, he died of typhus.
What is striking about this story is that Desnos was not just against the Nazis; if he was just against the Nazis, he almost certainly would’ve done nothing or created nothing notable. Desnos was for something—he was for “the right to develop according to the laws of one’s own being.” And because he was for freedom, his imagination generated actions that created freedom in impossible circumstances.
There are lessons to be learned by this story. Every day, as the United States continues its downward spiral, we are told bold action is not possible—we are told the Federal Reserve must go on with its destructive monetary policy and that the government must continue to run large deficits as it bails out the next generation of failing firms and banks. We are told we must settle for second-rate politicians because they are the practical choices that won’t rock the status quo too much.
And in our personal lives, we often behave much the same way. We don’t want to rock the status quo. We indulge in personal destructive habits and listen to the tedious list of grievances of our ego which is against much but for little of value.
As we do all of the above, our mental muscles that generate imaginative creative solutions atrophy. Yet, because the opportunity to change our mind is always there, opportunity is indeed now here.