You Can’t Will Yourself a Better Life

Years ago, I read this mediocre tween novel about a group of people who enslaved another group of people on a frost planet or something. The privileged group lived in luxury while the oppressed group slaved away in ice mines.

I’m not sure why they were mining ice, but the result was this group of people was always cold. Not just chilly, but perpetually on the verge of freezing to death.

This made them easy to oppress. Not only did the ruling group have the power to quash any rebellion, but the enslaved group was so physically devastated as to be hardly able to rouse a resistance in the first place.

In the end – spoiler alert, but don’t read this book anyway – the oppressed group rallied the power do fight for and achieve equality. The catalyst which allowed them to achieve this momentous feat was when our hero discovered the power was in her all the time.

She and her people could be warm, she discovered. All they had to do was think warm thoughts.

No, seriously. The solution to these people being enslaved for generations was for them to visualize images of fire. Problem solved.

Even knowing this was a fantasy novel, that was always a little much suspension of disbelief for me.

You can’t will yourself to be warm.

In fact, feeling warm in a cold environment is one of the warning signs for frostbite, but I suppose it could also mean your ready to throw off the shackles of oppression.

It’s a nice story. It’s a nice idea that all you need to do is find your inner power and believe in yourself. I believe there’s a story like that about a girl with “magic” ballet shoes. It turns out she could dance beautifully the whole time – the “magic” shoes just helped her believe.

It’s a nice story. But it IS a story. And it is, in fact, a dangerous story.

In the short story American Hijiki, Akiyuki Nosaka recounts his moments from his childhood in post-war Japan. The work gets its name from his experience of an American airdrop of what his family took to be Hijiki – a type of seaweed. They were confused when they tried to eat it, though – as it turns out, it was tea.

But there’s another parable in there which seems relevant. After the war ended, Americans generously air-dropped aid packages Japanese families, who were starving since all their fields had been destroyed. They had been defeated, they had been humiliated, and they had no food to survive. But Americans dropped aid packages.

For weeks at a time they dropped nothing but bubble gum.

They dropped bubble gum to feed these starving souls.

And that, Nosaka says, is when he learned: you can’t get full from bubble gum.

And don’t think he didn’t try. Nosaka details different ways they tried to prepare the gum. Ways they tried to squeeze out the flavor or use the sticks to quell their empty stomachs. But nothing they did helped.

Because you can’t get full from bubble gum.

Just like you can’t warm yourself by thinking about it and you can’t will yourself a better life if you try.

Yes, individuals have agency. They have the capacity to make good choices and bad, and a lot can be changed by a person’s will and resolve. But at the end of the day, context is everything.

No matter how hard you try, you can’t get full on bubble gum.

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