How do ‘you’ live your life before the advent of the revolution, the apocalypse, the second coming, the long-awaited journey to heaven? If you’re a Christian is this to do more with your promised afterlife or how you live today? If you’re a Communist do you live with comradely relations with others, do you practise the authentic life that radiates from core values of care, justice and equality – or is that something you’ll only start doing after the revolution?
This is a polemic, opinions blowing in the wind. Anything to which you object think through your objection. I’ll probably object to some or all of it myself tomorrow!
My own view of all these visions of a Big Event after which everything will be much better is that they are forms of superstition. As is well known, superstition gives solace to the powerless, the desperate, the suffering, the miserable. Institutions have long taken advantage of this propensity. Religion and political ‘theory’ in particular promise jam tomorrow, Sugar Candy Mountain just over the horizon. There’s more than religion which is ‘an opiate for the people’.
Such ‘big’ superstitions are part of the spectrum of illusions that conceal reality. It’s a fruitless task arguing about what reality may be, but I’d suggest that removing the lens of superstition would give us a better chance of thinking about it. Also, of course, before we dismiss illusions it is well to consider that without illusions of some sort human life would be utterly unbearable.
In my very limited experience, I don’t think superstition is very good for people who would like to live ‘a good life’. I ask you rhetorically to consider your observations of hot-eyed futurists predicting and awaiting the Big Event. How often are they unfriendly, cynical, nasty, miserable and deeply unhappy? Christian or Socialist, Buddhist or Conservative, Moslem or Liberal. I exclude Jews because Judaeism is the only religion that doesn’t have time for superstition.
Then there is the superstitious myth that is so prevalent it’s difficult to see. Human Progress here is the superstition. Those pernicious Enlightenment values of positivism, materialism, technology, capitalism, ‘reason’ – all spawned by the collision of Protestant Christianity with revolutionary advances in science and technology. And capitalism. A capitalism which has a sordid history of inducing starvation, terror, holocaust, alienation, sickness, madness, gross exploitation, destruction of the planet…. Worship of money, power, self-interest, material goods, status is based on the superstition not so much that these things are good but that they will make you feel good. Yet clearly, the ‘winners’ here have no immunity from misery, suffering, and a deep chronic unhappiness.
It is very dangerous to remove, or try to remove, one’s own or others’ superstitious illusions. Psychologically they defend the ego from chaos; they give an understandable shape to the universe; they provide individual power. On the latter point, it is sadly to be noted that people who believe in conspiracies – whether by the Illuminati, a cadre of ultra-wealthy men, or a cadre of lizards – are usually among those who have the lowest self of esteem and power. It would be cruel even to try to disillusion them (although such is the power of belief that it will always successfully repel all boarders).
We live, in Yeats’ words in ‘the rag and bone shop of the heart’. We are bricoleurs : gathering together the bits of flotsam and jetsam that come our way and make of them our lives. Our beliefs are part of the foundation of these lives. It matters not at all whether these beliefs are based on ‘truth’; all that matters is that we believe them. And if we can become a member of a group or tribe that believes the same things, so much the better for our sense of being on the side of ‘right’. So much easier is it to reduce the vast universe of other beliefs than ours to ‘them’, the enemy.
We are indeed truly addicted to our beliefs. Without them we would be naked, empty, blown by the winds of chaos.
And yet. What the above ignores is that many ‘believers’ of various sorts are far more sophisticated. They would accept the general description of beliefs, including their own. But a minority of believers are less fixed on some simple block of ‘truth’; rather, they may drift between different beliefs systems, perhaps be more at home with one to which they orient themselves. They may explore their beliefs with all their inconsistencies, contradictions, different renderings, comparisons with the many different renderings from many sources which cluster around a belief.
But whoever the believer, the question remains, and it’s so basic that it almost seems absurd. Does the centrality of belief(s) in an individual’s life promote or diminish their happiness, their sense of flourishing?
It’s risky to question our beliefs. It could leave us crazy. But it’s a risk worth taking by some. To achieve a distance from our sense of self, to see impersonally, to not yawn or utter some cynical witticism when our all too human psychology is contemplated. It may be the start of making worthwhile our brief existence. Or, for others, it may be more appropriate to enjoy life when possible, stay away from the outside chaos, and stay secure in the small house that illusions built.
As a writer, all this is fertile territory. Characters in fiction all have different belief systems: hence conflict, tension, despair. I try to show how characters’ lives are curtailed severely by rigid adherence to beliefs, beliefs so deep I think of them as addictions. I also have fun dismantling social and individual myths, beliefs, norms and values. In this, I am far from alone. For instance, the best American novels cannot fail to take on the American Dream. Even Jane Austen delights in demonstrating the lack of deep beliefs and values in many of her characters. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain seems to me to be built around the tragedy of fixed beliefs. But, as pointed out above, in life iconoclasm, the attack on a person’s most almost-sacred beliefs is not to be taken lightly: see Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.
In any case, as readers with all our well-tuned defence mechanisms we so very rarely see aspects of ourselves in the characters we encounter.