I’ve grown up reading Iain Banks. From the Wasp Factory and through his culture based science fiction, I’ve read them all, usually as soon as they are released in hard back. So it was a very sad day when he gave the statement about his terminal cancer. I read his last book ‘The Quarry’ with mixed feelings. Happy to have another Banks book to read, sadness that this would be the last. I assumed the storyline about a young man’s father who is dying of cancer was more autobiographical than it actually was. Ironically it pre-dated his own terrible news.
It is a simple book. One location, one view point, one timeline and a few interesting characters. This gives it plenty of space to explore ideas. One that really got me thinking was what one of the characters calls ‘Miraculist thinking’. I’ll let Iain explain.
‘Miraculist thinking,’ Hol says, ‘is that which assumes that only one of our ideas or behaviours – society’s ideas or behaviours, humanity’s ideas or behaviours – really needs to change, or be changed, to somehow suddenly – miraculously – make everything okay.’ ‘Such as?’ Rob asks. Hol shrugs. ‘At its crudest it’s the Why can’t we all just pull together? argument.’
Given the topic of he book, and reading the book with Iain’s cancer in mind, it is too easy to take this as a rant about whacky miracle cures, however I think that misses the point. The context is social. Iain is talking about how groups of people pin their hopes on the next idea that will solve their shared issues. This ‘Miraculist thinking’ applies to families and businesses as much as society or humanity.
For the family, who hope that the house move, or the next holiday abroad will somehow fix underlying dysfunctions. The business where the next buzzword methodology, usually accompanied by some expensive consultant, will suddenly – miraculously – result in substantive improvements overnight. It’s all part of the same thinking.
‘Everything,’ Hol says, ‘– print, radio, television, computers, digitalisation, the internet – makes a difference, but nothing makes all the difference. We build better lives and a better world slowly, painstakingly, and there are no short cuts, just lots of improvements: most small, a few greater, none … decisive.
This is the truth of the matter. As much as we want to believe, the book sellers and the consultants, there is no quick fix. When it comes to the messy, complex, tangled, uncertain problems of humanity, society, family or business, making a real difference takes time. It takes small improvements across multiple fronts, over a long period of time. So stop wasting time on the hunt for the next ‘big thing’, instead get on with the hard work of making a better world with everything you do, one small step at a time.