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Sojourn in an empire of illusion

by David Shackleton (Contact David at david@integraldesign.org)

There is some sadness in me as I write my last column for this Balance blog. I have not achieved what I wished for with this series of columns -– a useful conversation with people about what is true and how to discover it.

conversationThe only person who took issue with my ideas in this forum, in a comment she posted, said also that she didn’t feel like debating the point.

The question of conversation about these issues is key. It is key because, for most of us, the only real opportunity we get to discover ideas that are different than our own is through conversation with others.

I am using “conversation” loosely here, to mean any interaction through words, whether via the medium of books, email, video, or in person. And the danger is that we become defended against different ideas, so that even if our ideas are very one-sided and distorted, still we hold them so strongly that we cannot entertain the possibility that we might be wrong.

We become insulated from reality.

maze-selfI spent a lot of time in my life attempting to understand why this is so, and how one might present information in a way that makes it accessible. I succeeded at the former, but failed at the latter.

There are examples of people who have been skilful or courageous enough to pass through people’s defenses. The story of Jesus with the woman taken in adultery, where he said to the self-righteous priests “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is one such.

I have found that, in the moment, I don’t have the insight to speak so powerfully. I have also considered the personal cost of becoming so powerful (look what happened to Jesus, after all), and turned away from paying that price. I guess I am not prophet material.

politiciansLike many Canadians, I watched some of the dialogue between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney last month. I was struck by how shallow the rhetoric was. For instance, the greatest problem facing our world today, climate change, was never mentioned.

However, that is understandable – here in Canada, when Stephan Dion made carbon taxes (the only sensible strategy) part of his platform, he went down to electoral defeat. On both sides of the border, it would seem, we don’t want politicians to address the real problems, we want them to reassure us that they will keep our lives pretty much the same.

We want them to defend us from feeling bad. Chris Hedges named the problem in his book Empire of Illusion, when he said, “Those captive to images cast ballots based on how candidates make them feel.

They vote for a slogan, a smile, perceived sincerity, and attractiveness, along with the carefully crafted personal narrative of the candidate. It is style and story, not content and fact, that inform mass politics.” [Hedges, Chris, Empire of Illusion, p.46]

And yet, we should know that our feelings are ephemeral, only loosely connected to truth. We have all had the experience of falling in love –- the feeling is overwhelming, it seems that it must last forever. How many great love songs have been written on this theme, mistaking intensity for longevity?

realityWhen the feeling inevitably changes, do we consider that it must have been mistaken in the first place? No, we usually conclude that the other person has changed, has become less lovable. We make our feelings the foundation of reality, and adjust everything else in order to keep them uncontradicted.

Just a little reflection would show us the truth about these things. But when we are insulated from reality, it is the capacity for thoughtful reflection that becomes atrophied. In a balanced psyche, thinking and feeling are in balance, equally powerful and equally utilized, and each informs the other.

When feeling dominates, we become inappropriately certain about our beliefs, and cannot understand how others fail to share them. We are indeed insulated from reality, without knowing that this is the case.

This morning I received an email from a friend of mine, Warren Farrell, who has dedicated his life to presenting a balanced view of gender politics, where men’s issues are as valid as women’s issues. The email was about a recent lecture he gave in Toronto, and the feminist protest against it (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iARHCxAMAO0 ).

genderIt is significant that, although the protester’s story about themselves was that they were opposed to hate speech, the only hate speech uttered was their own. Such are the distortions of reality that result when we make what feels right the only guide to our understanding of the world.

If you watch the video, consider what you might say to the young woman who was saying “You are scum” to the young man about whom she knew only that he wished to attend the lecture.

I imagine that you realize that there is nothing that could be said that would reveal to her her own imbalance, the injustice of her ideas and her behavior. And yet, it is so obvious to us (I hope that it is obvious to you as it is to me).

This is the tragedy of consolidated, habitual imbalance, that one can become so distorted and confused, and justify hateful and harmful behavior with a delusion of personal righteousness. This, in fact, is the genesis of human evil.

illusionI believe that all of this will work out over time, the reality distortions will eventually become unsustainable, and corrections will happen. Reality, after all, is ultimately pre-eminent, and our self-serving stories, like falling in love, will not stand the test of time.

But oh, how much suffering will be created in the meantime by our denial of truth. It has been, and continues to be, hard for me to accept that there is little I can do to change this process.

snowflake-bluePeople’s choices are theirs to make, they have a right to deny reality and substitute a self-serving story that creates suffering for the whole world.

Or perhaps they don’t have a right, but they certainly have the power to do this.

I wish you well for the holiday season. May your time with family or friends be healthy, joyous and fulfilling.