“I Can’t Believe It”


Sometimes ordinary language tells us far more about social life than we at first realize.

For example, take two common phrases:

“I can’t believe it”


“Let it sink in…”

What’s going on when we say that? Or, better put, when do we say that? And what does it tell us about the word “belief” — a word we usually use as if it names some pristine interior realm that’s only secondarily projected out and expressed in public.

Case in point, consider this clip from an interview with Rickie Lambert, the UK soccer player (or footballer, as they’d say), concerning news of his June 2014 move to play for the club in Liverpool — which happens to be the city of his birth.

Concerning the move he was quoted as saying:

I have always dreamt of playing for Liverpool, but I did kind of think the chance of playing for them had gone. I didn’t think the chance would come.

So what’s going on when we refuse to believe things and decide that they have to take time to “sink in”?

Given that some of us adopt an alternative approach to studying belief (e.g., consider the quote from Zizek toward the end of this post) — seeing belief as an internalized residue from a prior, repeated social situation (thereby making claims of belief the leftover from an all too public moment) — the fact that we often say such things as “I don’t believe it” makes a lot of sense; now, we likely don’t say such things after it’s “sunk in” for a few days (thereby working its way from outside in). No; instead, we only say such things when placed in a new and unexpected situation — whether good or bad. And since we’ve not yet had time to acclimatize ourselves to it (and, more importantly, to the social implications for our sense of our selves, like getting used to having a great job or, maybe, having lost one), we communicate this to our peers by means of the language of belief.

As if it’s about the inner world when, in fact, it’s all about our place in an outer world.

So we’d be mistaken, I think, to hear the word as referring to some private realm; instead, it provides evidence of an alienated public situation, one in which we are not accustomed to the position in which we’ve been put — not yet, at least. Like someone winning the lottery or, perhaps, hearing that a loved one has died. “I can’t believe it… I was just talking to him yesterday” they might say. But give it a few days, or weeks, or whatever length of time it takes (all depending on the degree of alienation, perhaps) and, sooner or later, we will cease making statements of wonder and, perhaps, just come to assume we were always entitled to that job.

Perhaps that’s how dream jobs eventually just become jobs.

Once it all sinks in.

As for Lambert? A year later he moved to a new club for yet another multimillion dollar contract.

Perhaps he couldn’t believe that either.