Friday, March 9, 2018


I was struck by several different things when I read the obituary the other day of Roger Bannister, the first person recorded to have run a mile in under four minutes.

Bannister, who died in Oxford, England, at age 88 last Saturday, achieved world-wide fame for his feat even despite the fact that he wasn’t necessarily the first person to run a four-minute mile, there having been human life on earth for about 200,000 years but the stop-watch only having been invented in 1821. So that leaves about 199,802 years during which no one knows how fast anyone ran and races were won merely by running faster than the other people in the race without anyone knowing anyone’s actual time. Nonetheless, it was considered in its day—and still—a remarkable accomplishment, the doing of something that it was widely thought simply could not be done.

It wasn’t under four by much: his time was 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. Nor did his record stand for long: the next person to run a mile in less than four minutes, an Australian runner named John Landy, replicated Bannister’s feat just a few weeks later and even managed to shave 1.4 seconds off Bannister’s time. Still, Bannister’s accomplishment was not the momentary blip in the record books it could have been: by the end of the 20th century, the International Association of Athletic Federations certified that the fastest-mile-record was broken no fewer than 32 times, culminating in the 3 minute, 43.13 second mile run in 1999 by a Moroccan runner named Hicham El Guerrouj. Of course, not every runner who runs the mile in less than four minutes breaks the standing record. And, indeed, since Bannister set his record on May 6, 1954, well over a thousand runners have been certified to have run a mile in less than four minutes.
Bannister’s subsequent story is also quite interesting. Realizing, I suppose, that there wasn’t actually any way to earn a living as a competitive runner, but also knowing himself well enough to understand that he wished to pursue a career in medicine rather than in the world of professional or amateur athletics, Bannister went on to attend medical school and from there to become a distinguished neurologist. In 2004, on the fiftieth anniversary of his accomplishment, Bannister was asked by an interviewer if he considered being the first to break the four-minute mile to have been his life’s crowning achievement. Bannister’s response, modest and thoughtful, was that he considered his four decades of medical practice as the great achievement of his life, particularly when the various new neurological procedures he personally introduced were taken into account. In a world that seems so often to value celebrity over mere accomplishment, it sounds at first like a surprising answer. But why should it be? And, indeed, when you think about it carefully, pathetic indeed would be the individual who devotes an entire life to the care of the sick and the development of innovative techniques to cure them, yet who considers all that good to be outweighed by having one single time run a mile really, really quickly.
I write about him today, though, neither specifically because of his death last week nor because of the record he broke per se, but rather because of what the whole incident says about the possibility of impossibility. Or, rather, about the whole concept of impossibility itself.
We could begin by asking where the notion that the four-minute mile was an impossibility came from. It obviously wasn’t true—well over a thousand people have replicated Bannister’s famous achievement since that blustery, damp day in May 1954 at Oxford’s Iffley Road track when he earned his place in the record books—and there obviously can’t have been any actual data to back up such a wholly arbitrary assumption about human ability. Yet it was thought—and, as far as I can see, universally—that no human being could run that fast. Everybody just knew it. Just in the same way that everybody once knew that there was no way to sail west from Europe and end up in India. Or, in a slightly different key, that America would never elect a black president. Or that it would be physically impossible for human beings to travel to the moon and return safely. Or that cars could ever self-drive.
All of those are examples of things that everybody just knew…until somebody decided not just to know it and instead to proceed as though the allegedly impossible was just something no one had figured out yet how precisely to pull off. Taking this thought to its natural conclusion, the great science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once wrote that, until it is done,everything is theoretically impossible. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.” That more or less sums up what I think too
As an interesting exercise in the possibility of impossibility, I’ve assembled a list of my three favorite things that everybody just (magically, somehow) knows are impossibilities. 
At the top of my list is the notion that peace between Palestinians and Israelis is simply impossible because the Palestinians, having failed to embrace partition in 1947, won’t ever give up their claim to every inch of Mandatory Palestine, which basically makes it impossible for Palestine and Israel both to exist. The Palestinian leadership is not especially flexible, that surely is true. Yet the world is filled with examples of nations that chose compromise over endless struggle, with countries (including our own, the U.K., Mexico, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Japan, and many more) that simply decided to live in peace with the neighbors rather than to hold on endlessly to land claims that there was no reasonable expectation ever to see satisfied. The Palestinians have made such a fetish about their knee-jerk rejectionism over the years that it just feels like an impossibility to imagine them behaving differently. But if the Germans can move past the sense that East Pomerania (now part of Poland) and Alsace (now part of France) should be part of Germany, then the Palestinians can move past their irredentist claims as well. (Have you forgotten what irredentism is and why it’s an important term for students of Middle Eastern politics to understand? Click here!) The world just needs to find a way to nudge them forward in a way that feels constructive rather than degrading…and then the impossible will suddenly feel entirely possible.
Moving along to the Jewish world, my second example of something everybody just knows is that it will be impossible for non-fundamentalist religion to survive in the long run, that the adherents of the liberal versions of all faiths—including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are doomed by the very tolerance and reasonability they vaunt as primary spiritual values to lose the battle against assimilationism and, eventually, to lose their sense of purpose and of self. It surely is true that the more people are taught to view people outside their own group with suspicion and hostility (both, hallmarks of fundamentalism), the more challenging it will be for members to feel justified in leaving the group. But it is also true that the virtues promoted by non-fundamental religion—open-mindedness, rationalism, and respect for alternate points of view—can exert a siren call on the human spirit as well, as evidenced by the millions of people who, despite all the predictions of doom, actually do belong to such faith communities. The further decline of non-fundamentalist religion in the West is not inevitable. And neither is it impossible to imagine a world in which it is the fundamentalists who perennially lose their people and versions of religions that promote absolute spiritual and intellectual integrity that increase almost without having to self-promote hardly at all, let alone actually to proselytize door-to-door.
And my third example of something wide known to be impossible is an American one—the widely held belief that it is simply impossible to imagine an American political landscape that features politicians reaching across the aisle to create policies and laws that benefit the nation as a whole through the strengthening of its core values and the legislative expression of those values. The common wisdom, as everyone knows, is that that kind of willing cooperation, desirable though it may sound, is simply nothing that could ever be an actual feature of our legislators’ work in Washington, that the whole Congress is so riven by factionalism and interparty dislike and mistrust that cooperation on the level that would be necessary for our legislators actually to work together for the people and not solely against each other is simply an impossibility. And yet…why should that be the case? Our legislators are mostly lawyers (43%), but all have other ways to earn a living yet have chosen to devote some or, in some cases, all of their professional lives to service of our country. Surely at least some of them—maybe even most—could make more money elsewhere! The notion that they are all agenda-driven, that nothing matters to any of them more than pushing his or her personal set of initiatives without respect for the public weal or the nation’s best interests—that seems, at the very least, to be only how things mostly seem, not how they inevitably have to be. Also worth noting in this regard that is almost 28% of the bills passed in the House and in the Senate pass unanimously and without opposition. That points to a different reality than the one we’ve trained ourselves to expect from these people: if Congress is narrowly divided in half along party lines with a slight edge for Republicans in the Senate and a slightly larger one in the House, how can more than a quarter of bills brought to a vote be passed unanimously? Clearly, these people can work together when properly motivated! So that is not an impossibility, just something we’ve been trained to think of that way!
And that concludes my list of possible impossibilities. None of my readers would mistake me for a natural optimist, but contemplating Roger Bannister in life and death buoys me slightly by making me remember that, in the end, most things deemed impossible are merely things that no one has managed to do just yet. May he rest in peace!