This is a serialization from my book, Happiness: A Physician/Biologist Looks at Life. To see the Table of Contents and the dust jacket blurb, click here; to start from the beginning, click here; to read the previous post, click here.
It is important for the rest of this book—and for our lives—that we understand that we are designed and programmed to be subject to illusions, to blind spots and tunnel vision. It is much more important that we realize that we also have an amazing ability to deny their existence. If our most powerful information—vision—and one of our most powerful motivators—pain—are illusions, then what are we to make of everything else that we are “sure” that we “know”?
Battling over Illusions
We are all of us blinded in countless spots, and tunnel-visioned from the larger experience of life around us; and then often we are equally blind to the blindness of the spots. People have hacked each other to death for centuries over senseless things, such as whether God is one, or three, or many. And the tragedy is that all of the combatants readily admit that God is far beyond their limited comprehension.
We constantly witness wars fought over issues where both sides are absolutely sure that their opinions—what they “see,” what they “feel,” and obviously, what they “know”—are true, accurate, reliable. At least one side must be wrong, and experience has taught us that generally both sides are wrong, at least partially.
Our blindnesses can ruin our lives. In our everyday life, we carry on other battles, battles with people we claim to love, sure that we are right, knowing that they are wrong. We claim to know what we know, simply because we have claimed it as knowledge; it is true for no other reason than we say it is true, or because someone has told us that it is true. We often make these conclusions without reason, without reliable information, and without critical, objective reflection. They are “blind” decisions.
And to the purpose of this book, we fight with ourselves, we struggle within our own heads—and then we can’t understand why we suffer so much damage, and why we are in pain. Our ideas about life, the ideas we insist that we “know,” often simply do not work; but we don’t notice. We pursue ideas that are illusions, and never question them. We do not want to examine critically what we “know,” and it never occurs to us that our supposed knowledge may be the very source of our unhappiness. As the question has been put, “Do you want to be right, or happy?” To which some of my friends and I facetiously answer, “Yes.” This is a good example of how we won’t so much as question our own ideas, even when they clearly contradict one another.
So we slog around in our lives, wading through the muck and grime, fighting against the people around us and fighting against ourselves; but sure that we are on the right path, confident that the way will become smooth just around the next corner. What we don’t notice is that every rat in the race is in the same mud-rut we are, some ahead of us, some behind, but in a rut nevertheless. We never notice that none of them have turned the corner, either. We often don’t question their lives anymore than we question our own.
And most of all, it never occurs to us that perhaps the race, and the rut, are exactly the problem. As others have noted, the winner of the rat race is still a rat.
Rethinking: From Jungle to City
We need to look at how we think, think in ways that don’t make a lot of sense—at least not for animals who live in cities instead of jungles, and who deal with stresses our ancestors never saw. I suggest that we labor under many illusions that served our ancestors, but that no longer serve us. Our bodies are fooling us—no, we are fooling us—with information, “knowledge,” and traditions that are no longer appropriate. And because of it, we suffer like fools.
If we want to be in control of our lives, and if we want to define happiness for ourselves, then it will help to always be a little bit skeptical of what we see, of what we feel, of what the people around us tell us, and most of all, of what we tell ourselves. Colors and blind spots are very simple illustrations, and easily demonstrated. The other illusions are a bit trickier.
Finding Comfort in Mud
And in all of them, it is crucial to remember that we like the illusions. We are quite comfortable with our blind spots, and with the confusions that they generate. We may be in a rut, up to our necks in mud, but it’s warm, it’s our mud, and we are comfortable in it.
Remember, we spend a lot of money on the illusions called “colors.” We likewise spend our money—and our lives—on illusions that are not so pleasing.
If we are to change our thinking, it will take some openness, some patience, and a suspicion of much of what we currently believe. As Walt Kelly mused through his hero in the comic strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We live our whole lives, believing that our vision of life is complete, totally unaware of the illusions, and the blank holes in what we are sure we can see.
If we want to be happy, if we want to be sure that our lives are ours, and that our decisions are going to be ours, then we want to be clear about what information is reliable, and what information is…
…well, an illusion.
To continue reading, click here: Morality as Survival.
1920 phtos of a Model T driving through the mud, public domain (origin unclear).