Animals live in a jungle, quite literally. It is a dog–eat–dog world out there. Only the fittest will survive and Darwinism is always at work. In such a world, animals have evolved many methods to overcome dangers from predators – from being able to run fast to developing strong claws and beaks; they are always on the lookout for themselves. While some have evolved physical attribute, other animals have resorted to fooling the predator by camouflage or trickery. Many animals can change colour to merge with the surroundings to prevent detection by predators. Some fool the predator like the lizard which detaches its tail or the possum which plays dead.
The American opossum or possum has perfected the technique of playing dead when faced with danger. It signals that the fight is over and allows the predator to let its guard down, giving it an opportunity for escape. This action of the possum has been used idiomatically to refer to any situation where a person refuses to face the facts and pretends to be ignorant of the situation or impervious to it. There are many situations when human beings take to playing possum metaphorically. When there are unwanted visitor to our house, we may pretend we are not home. When there are uninvited guests, we tell the kids to tell them we are not home. All these are instances when human beings act dead to the situation.
Many philosophers have referred to this condition as walking about with eyes closed, choosing not to see the many unpleasant things that go on around us. Maybe this is our way of protecting ourselves, to put an invisible wall around us and let ourselves be touched only by things that we let through that wall. We remain untouched by all those things that cannot permeate the wall. We have learnt to selectively see and observe only what we desire and remain blind to those things that we find unpleasant.
Playing possum is an idiomatic expression that quite describes the state of mankind on a larger scale with respect to world events. There are many events around the world that ought to shock us, many injustices that we need to speak out against, many situations where moderate and gentle people ought to speak up and take a stand against extremist elements, to lend a voice of support to causes and movements against injustices. But more often than not, we choose to keep quiet, and pretend that these situations do not exist and be blind to them. We merely wish them away and perhaps say a silent thanks to those who choose to actively oppose, but find that we ourselves lack the commitment or the fire to take on these issues on the head, because ‘Playing Possum’ is an easier option. However, we must remember that if we play possum for too long, we may wake up to find a world that we are no longer comfortable living with. It may all be too late!