The power of belief

The older I get, the more I am struck by the power of belief.

We have just had another few weeks of the Olympics, when we can see the difference belief can make between elite athletes, all of whom have trained not just their bodies, but their minds to be able to perform as well as they can, even if on the day, not everything works out quite as planned. Watching the closing couple of miles of the marathon, you could see that there was as much belief as physical stamina getting the runners to the finish line at the ridiculous paces they run at. And seeing Kipchoge speed up at the end even when he was never going to be caught was something else.

Some of our beliefs are grounded in experience. I believe that I can drive a car safely from A to B because I’ve done it a thousand times before. I believe that there will not be someone else on the road driving dangerously and forcing me off the road, because otherwise I would not get in my car in the first place. It’s not something I am conscious of when getting into he car, but it’s a subconscious belief nonetheless. I believe I can run a marathon (just not at the moment) because I have done it before; I also know that the facts speak against me doing one at the moment because I have had a few weeks off for summer.

I certainly believe in the power of inspiration. Watching runners in the Olympics gives me an additional impetus to get out there and try a bit harder. When running up my final hill yesterday, at one point, I thought, would Kipchoge be cruising along at this pathetic pace? – and I made a bit more of an effort. I use that kind of inspiration frequently when I’m running, saying to myself, right, for this bit I’m going to run like a Kenyan, then I take off and it feels different, even if the reality that I am not a Kenyan and can’t keep that pace going for much longer kicks in sooner or later. But it helps me, and I do not believe that I am literally an elite Kenyan runner, so for me it is an entirely positive source of inspiration and an amusing delusion for a few minutes.

Inspiration comes also from listening to other people – and having a notebook with me because if there is one thing I have learned it is that I might believe I will remember what I heard, but the facts speak against it. I never remember it.

We are in the middle of the Edinburgh festivals right now, which means a combination of actors, writers and dancers, all sources of inspiration

We went to see Austentatious, where the cast put on a different play each performance, based on a random title from the hundreds of suggestions the audience scribble on pieces of paper as they come in. All in the style of Jane Austen. It was amusing, but also educational for me, because I spent half the time working out how I thought they must do it, given the cast do not confer when they are in the wings (you can see them pretty much all the time) and the scenes unfold effortlessly.

And then there was Scottish Ballet doing Crystal Pite’s Emergence. The audience’s opinion seemed to be divided because Emergence was the second of two pieces they did, the first being an all-male one which was powerful, brutal and, at times, disturbing – not for everyone, I suspect. It was remarkable to see the versatility of these dancers who would normally be performing more classical ballets, but this was Scottish Ballet, and they do even those classical pieces differently, as recently witnessed in their version of Swan Lake. If you have no interest in dance, but might be willing to go to see one production in your lifetime, go and see them perform Emergence. You might find you were wrong about dance. The whole piece is based on the activity of hives of insects, with the dancers’ limbs twitching at points in unison, incredible body shapes inside a tunnel that is the entrance to the hive, and a simply stunning part where all the female dancers dance/march slowly forward in a long line, forcing back the males until one of the males tries to break through, and the line suddenly flexes around him and creates the most amazing movement of eighteen bodies moving as one. It’s also possibly the only time the whole company (37 of them) will be on the stage at the same time, and what a difference the sheer number of them makes in this piece.

Scottish Ballet

(This is Scottish Ballet’s photo – I hope they will not mind me using to advertise them!)

And now for the authors. I decided to mix things up a bit this year and go to some where I have never read any of their books. I’m nowhere near finished yet, but these were the first three:

AL Kennedy was amusing and made every effort to tell us why we really would not enjoy her latest book. It’s long, and it’s all about two people trying to get together for lunch one day. Maybe not on the top of my reading list then.

Billy Bragg sang some songs and got himself into a spot of bother with some comments he made about Jeremy Corbyn. A great hour and then some more as he was in no hurry to finish on time and there was nobody coming after him, so he just kept going and sang some more songs. His comments on songwriting versus novels and photography versus paintings gave me a different perspective.

Sometimes all you need is to stop your mind whirring so quickly and sit and listen. The big events at the book festival are of necessity held in a large tent with rows of seats to get as many people as possible in. But when you get something in the Spiegeltent, it feels totally different, especially if it’s early on a weekend and not so full as the more riotous evening events (so I’m told). Sitting around tables, listening to someone read from their latest book and talk about all the things he learned as he wrote it, as well as a bit about the process he goes through, all fascinating. And in amongst it were some prompts that I realised I could use. I ended up writing one abbreviated scene during the event that fitted two of my characters perfectly, based on a throwaway comment he made. And I bought the book – Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson – on the basis of that hour, and the fact that his main character disappears to Berlin one day. I want to see how he deals with that and the story sounded good. Plus he’s another apparently brilliant writer I have never heard of. I’m trying to find more of them.


So much for inspiration.

When it comes to belief in general, I find there’s always that question lurking in the background. What happens when the facts collide with something I believe to be true, be it politics, religion, human interaction, or a host of other possible sources of pitfalls.

I changed my political viewpoint a few years ago when I looked not at what I assumed the various parties stood for, but at what they actually stood for. It turned out that what I thought (believed) was important was most closely aligned with a completely different party than I had expected (believed). The more I looked into it, the more I realised that I had been operating on a false set of beliefs. The facts changed. My opinion changed. The same with religion.

I start reading every book with an expectation (belief) of what I will make of it, what I might end up taking away from it. And I am invariably wrong, because I am basing my expectation on zero knowledge of the book and, sometimes, the author. And the more I read, the more I realise that my viewpoint on almost everything is changed by what I read. I understand different perspectives much better, can begin to feel what other people must feel like in situations which I will never find myself in. And I get to live as many lives as books I read. That’s a pretty good deal.

The attitude I hope I aim for in challenging what I believe against the facts is encapsulated in something attributed to John Maynard Keynes, even though he might never have said it. But I think it is still right.

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?

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