We were 40 minutes into an 11 a.m. lecture for Bible as Literature when our professor, Ralph Williams, offered another one of his “Williamsisms.” It was in the thick of a complicated, careful analysis on the theological necessity of the annihilation of the first generation of Israelites in the wilderness (in Numbers, precluding the entry into the promised land at Canaan). It was the sort of aphorism that, thrust off-hand, I almost missed amidst my grasping to keep up with the narrative, the details, the characters and the chronology. But this one was a diamond in the rough, a needle in the haystack, a pearl in the sand, whatever idiom suits your fancy. A biggy. I’ll get back to it.
Impossibility is an obscure, transient notion. Long have philosophers sought to explain that which defies the laws, the mental framework within which we live our lives. Take Isaac Newton, for example, who posited much of the foundational physics principles upon which modern theory rests. During his time, the concept of the presence and interaction of “invisible forces” as a medium guiding much of the observable phenomena was truly implausible and impossible. In the words of Williams: “Oh” (i.e. “they really swung and missed on that one?”)
Indeed, it seems, something is only impossible until it can be explained. Impossibility withers in the face of reason, removed from the precipice of the miraculous and placed within the realm of the conceptual. In this way, impossibility is but a temporary asterisk marking that which we do not yet understand.
So, why does any of this long-winded musing on the nature of impossibility matter? Well, it’s necessary in order to gain an appreciation that the impossible is overcome every day.
History is flush with this storyline. Light could not be explained until Louis de Broglie and David Bohm articulated the wave-particle duality. No sprinter could run a mile in less than four minutes until Roger Bannister did. Pictures could not move until Georges Meliés and others made the first movies. No pitcher could throw faster than 102 miles per hour until Aroldis Chapman did. Hell, hepatitis C could not be cured until Sovaldi until its approval in 2013. The plot of history’s “impossibles” is canonical and repetitive: “it could not happen, until, well, it did.”
Albert Einstein put this conception of impossibility (while at the center of a heated debate between science and religion) a particularly eloquent way: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness … In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that ‘cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable.’ ”
In other words, Einstein believed that religion and science reflect a rather similar fascination with understanding the impossible.
That is, until we, inevitably, grasp it.
I know, I know. I’m a little bit off the deep end right now. So let me come back to that Williamsism, if you’ll let me. In that 40th minute, Ralph stated, simply and as only he can, that “possibility is only bounded by the imagination.”
Put another way: you think, therefore you may be. Conversely, deeming something impossible is a form of creative apathy. It’s a label used to qualify an anomalous phenomenon. It’s a manifestation of intellectual arrogance, a claim that the current framework of comprehension is the right, and the only, one.
Of course, if there’s one immutable historical truth, it’s that things happen, facts emerge, and minds change. Indeed, the impossible is as malleable and temporary as the lens through which we view it. Wow! (As an aside, if you haven’t registered yet, I’d go take one of his classes.)
In other news, this is my last official column for The Michigan Daily. In my time writing, I’ve addressed many different topics, including once providing a reflection on some of the career decisions I’ve made, coupled with some advice. I would be remiss if I didn’t add one last nugget, one that Adidas popularized a few years back: “Impossible is nothing.”
Here’s what I make of the tagline: “impossible,” as a label, is nothing. It’s meaningless, an excuse for a void of knowledge or of skill. And inversely, impossible is no thing. No thing is impossible. It’s just as Coach Holtz (and Mom) said it: “Nothing is impossible … if you put your mind to it.”
I always loved “Hardy Boys” and “Scooby Doo” as a kid. And this idea — that the most distant challenges are but mysteries waiting to be solved — is tremendously inspiring. I hope you find it as empowering as I do as you move forward with your life.
Actually, one more thing, before I sign off, that I would regret if I didn’t do. I want to thank my readers for the attention, for the support and for giving me the opportunity to grow up through this newspaper these four years.
Thank you. It means the world.
Eli Cahan can be reached at email@example.com.