“A mix of illusion and reality”
Saturday Reflection, Jassie Cassidy, Spencer News
There are times when the waves keep crashing relentlessly on our shores, that we need a healthy dose of reality. I am reminded of Blaise Pascal’s famous wager as outlined in his important philosophical treatise, Pensee. He argues that even from a sceptical position, one should accept the existence of God, if for no other reason, than that a world without the belief in God would be hopeless and absurd. In other words, it is preferable to cling to the illusion that God exists because if we deny his existence the world risks becoming a darker place.
Frequently, it’s our illusions that prevent us from sinking into unhappiness or despair. As Pascale shows, illusions help to make us think that the world is a bright place. They give us hope and help us to see the glass always “half full”. So if people often put an unreasonable spin on stories to favour themselves, my advice is not to automatically contradict them. They are just making their world a brighter place.
Perhaps that’s why Hollywood-happy ending movies prosper. People love to imagine or at least cling to the illusion that there is always a nice ending to their problems. Otherwise, they would sink into frustration and even depression. Such movies enable us to imagine that there is a God who has a positive design in our life.
These days, the dreams and illusions of refugees dominate headlines. Many boat people are languishing in Indonesia and off-shore refugee camps constantly thinking that life is necessarily better elsewhere. For example, 17 year old Javid Zanidi made the journey from war-torn Afghanistan as a persecuted Hazara to Indonesia because he had heard that life in Australia was better. “I know so many people who made it to Australia,” he says. “It’s a good life for them. They have everything”. For people like Javid illusions are important and for this reason he dare not tell his family in Afghanistan that he remains in a refugee camp in Indonesia. This would crush their own dreams. AS he notes, it is important that he has hope as well as his family. On the other hand, there are stories of migrants who come to Australia and are disillusioned because they find that life is much harder than they imagined.
Another reason why we cling to illusions is because they help us to protect our integrity and our relationships and hence make life more comfortable for us. According to psychologist Dorothy Rowe who has just published a book called, “Why we Lie” we tell lies because we fear being disliked. “We don’t want to be disliked because being disliked erodes our sense of being a person. She states that “being disliked is so frightening .. and when you go through looking for the reasons behind the reasons, what emerges is a lie in order to protect yourself and make sure that people like you.”
Both prove as another psychologist, Ian Leslie, states, “without lies and evasions we would be constantly offended and upset by each other; fights would break out; relationships would collapse.”
However, we must question whether there are cases where we lose more than we gain by clinging to our illusions. At what stage do illusions become destructive and counter-productive? In other words, at what stage does Pascal’s Wager compromise our safety and wellbeing?
I was thinking about this very question when I went to see A Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller. The local Spencer Street Theatre Company was staging this memorable play and it was staging a local up-and-coming actor, George bent.
Willy’s illusions conceal his disappearing grip on reality and his suicidal thoughts about his temporariness.
For Willy the illusions become dangerous. As Rowe also states living a life of delusions can lead to unintended and unimagined consequences.
Here is a character who has broken down all barriers between illusion and reality. His life becomes a constant flickering between the past and the present owing to unachievable and falsified ideas of success and an obsession with being “well-liked”. In comparison to his reality, Willy is an unsuccessful salesman who must borrow money in order to pay the bills
Willy’s illusions disrupt his relationship with Biff; he is unable to confront the fact that his modern desires and the myth of attractability are eating his soul, peeling him like a piece of fruit.
There are times when Willy’s illusions dissolve temporarily; his obsession with the car reveal just how dangerously he is sliding into the abyss. Miller’s portrayal of cars is a metaphorical representation of Willy’s psychological instability. His dangerous driving, swerving into other lanes translates to his “temporary” state of mind, also suggestive that Willy’s illusions are placing himself in dangerous situations. Sometimes, illusions can become even more destructive than “life’s harsh reality.”
As Rowe reminds readers, it is preferable to recognise your own truths, no matter how painful and saddening these might be”. This helps us to deal with ‘whatever life throws at you”.
In the final scenes of “Death of a Salesman,” we see the beginnings of Biff Loman’s transformation. He finally acknowledges the reality that he is merely a “dime in a dozen,” and sheds Willy’s unrealistic illusions, which had restricted much of early adulthood. He strives to realize his own practical endeavours, moving “out West” and aiming to make a living for himself on a farm. Through self-awareness and honesty, we are able to deal with reality authentically.
So illusions can be helpful. They can help to improve your life and help us to constantly imagine a better place and a brighter world. If, as Pascal says we are caught between nothingness from which being erupts and the infinite which is infinitely larger than we can even imagine, then illusions help us to survive. It’s just that we must be careful which illusions we choose so that we are not crushed, unarmed or diminished.
Self-deception is a dangerous mechanism and must be treated with caution. Though it does serve to improve our lives by promoting self-esteem and cushioning the traumatic effects of reality, there can be dangers. Whilst “humankind cannot bear much reality,” we cannot be swamped by illusion either. When our dreams and expectations become unrealistic and particularly when they have completely wormed their way into our lived reality, delusions are counter-productive. Therefore, the only way to combat tragedy is by gaining self-awareness and learning to approach life honestly.
Finally, “man is a but a reed, weakest in nature, but a reed which thinks. It needs not that the whole Universe should arm to crush him.”