How does one grow from ignorance and fantasy, self-deception or wishful thinking to self-awareness and courage in the act of facing reality and turning it to good account? In exploring this question with me, perhaps you will find some answers that will help you climb a few rungs on the ladder to happiness.
Are beliefs not often the children of ignorance and fantasy? Consider the heavenly view of the world that young souls entertain at the height of their innocence, when their youth has been surrounded by love and filled with happiness. Hear their laughter. Dreams expand in a vacuity of knowledge like a laughing gas and induce the blindest, the purest joy.
Ignorance is bliss, as they say, because it spares us the mental restraints associated with knowledge (which reveals the limits of reality and hence the impossibility of our fantasies). It is the ultimate playground where the mind can build castles in the air, create a wonderland, and live delightedly in this kingdom of reverie. It paves the way for the reign of error, as it leaves us to believe whatever we like. Everything that is desirable is realizable, if not real, until we find evidence to the contrary. Santa Claus eventually dies of our old age – when we are no longer so young, so green, that we are easily fooled by a tall story.
In truth, however wise we may be, we are still at risk. We spontaneously indulge in fantasies about the world here below, which is never totally known, or the beyond, which is unknowable. We are always tempted to believe that our health, our relationships, our career, or any other part of our life, will be wonderful, or that our death will not be an end, but a passage from here to a paradisal hereafter. This temptation is irresistible for many when they discover a charismatic fortuneteller or spiritual leader who professes this belief, which remains unproven nonetheless. Our believing is then the result of ignorance and fantasy, plus faith.
An example of self-deceit that concerns young idealists and betrays their warm-blooded aspiration for perfect love is the illusive passion they often experience toward attractive members of the opposite sex whom they little know. By perfect love I mean a complete and durable harmony at every level – physical, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual – between two lovers. It involves friendship to a high degree, as the words “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” suggest. While it includes lust, it transcends and transfigures it.
Pop songs are common vehicles for this ideal, which entices many young souls. I am thinking of young men in particular, who are usually quick to fantasize about pretty young women and fall madly in love with them, or rather with a fantastical image of them. This quickness is typical of their ardent and imprudent youth. It needs nothing more than a few smiles and nods, a few gracious words of agreement, to make these young men imagine they have found a soul mate, as they pour out their inner self – their sense of what is good, true, right, or sacred. A few auspicious signs and, voilà, they take the pretty young women for dream girls and are besotted with them! A few misleading signs, in fact. Every charm hides a cause for alarm.
If, in the struggle for survival and happiness, society is a cure for individual limitations (an imperfect cure to be sure, with side effects), it is also a pill hard to swallow. Civility is a smooth sugar coating that eases the swallowing. Give thanks to those who phrase their discontentment with delicacy and embellish it with a compliment and an encouragement. No nagging, no gagging. Sometimes civility excludes honesty and amounts to well-meaning or self-serving hypocrisy. It turns into servility through a mix of kindness and weakness, or through pure selfishness. One way or another, some people are fooled, kept in the dark, while they should live wisely, in the light of knowledge. They are denied truth: the opportunity to conceive of their true situation and achieve their true purpose.
Young men, among the fantasizers I referred to earlier, are often lured by the social graces of pretty young women. The poor fish take the hook and eventually discover they have made a mistake, like many others in the same boat. The dream girls were ordinary maidens or vixens who first behaved and talked infinitely sweet, and later proved lovable in a limited way or revealed their sour temper.
A long intimacy is a good test of a couple’s true nature. It always strips relationships of the silky appearance they sometimes have initially, when seduction overrides every other consideration. This appearance is superficial and deceptive like the outer layers of an onion. Once it is removed, after a succession of changes that marked a gradual return to naturalness, conflicts arise. The truth is uncovered; tears are shed.
Many young fantasizers part from their lovers at this point. They embark on another relationship until the next disillusion, the next dissolution, then embark on another relationship, and so forth. They do the same in other areas of life, starting this or that with high expectations and quitting upon the first difficulties, time and again. They never settle for less than perfection; they never build anything to speak of.
Some of these fantasizers stop this nonsense after a number of disappointments and finally change into brave realists. Their bravery distinguishes them from other disenchanted souls who give up hope to give in to laziness with a clear conscience. These defeatists confuse their attitude with realism and suffer nullity or mediocrity rather than fight for excellence, which is possible, unlike perfection. In their view, humans are in their element only when fantasizing, like fish when swimming. In fact, humans – who are adaptable – are closer to amphibians than to fish. They can come back to earth without dying of frustration, and even better, with a chance to live happily, thanks to a blend of struggle and resignation that yields joy and serenity.
Brave realists know and accept the conditions and limitations of happiness. They think it all the more precious as it has a high cost and is bound to be lost sooner or later. They also understand that although one may indulge in a fickle existence for a while, one must eventually commit and apply oneself to a particular relationship, study, or career, in spite of imperfections and difficulties, if one wishes to achieve something worthy of mention. Nothing good can come from a search for better that always leaves one thing for another.