by Ralph Lelii, English department
I have just competed my thirty-fourth year as a classroom teacher, and each year for the past decade, I have tried to gather a few ideas to clarify my understanding of the world as I prepare for the next season of teaching. As I have grown older, I think less and less about being right, and a good deal more about getting clarity. It is my belief now that our ability to see the world as clearly as we otherwise might is hampered by our tendency to cling to illusions which serve us in several psychological and evolutionary ways. Identifying these illusions each year helps center me, and I pass them on to my students to see if there is any resonance in their own understanding of the world.
I am humbled to hear that the amount of knowledge in the world, defined as published information, doubles every 11 months. In 1900, it doubled every 75 years. It is predicted that within 20 years, it will double every 3 months. If these things are true, what might we rightly expect from an education in the face of this development? How might I get clearer in what I believe my students need to know? Clearly, their smart phones give them 24/7 access to all of the world’s knowledge, so I must surrender to a certain extent my identity and authority as a source of knowledge, and think instead about what might help us grasp this almost infinite stream of information with relative coherence and clarity. Here are seven illusions I identified for myself this year and passed on to my seniors.
- The illusion that somewhere, somehow, there is a person or an entity who “knows” what is wrong with our earthly existence and will fix it correctly in due time. There is no one person ultimately in charge of the world–it is the thinking of a child to assume so–but it is a widely held belief nonetheless. Each of us must carry our share of the responsibility and have faith that the great majority of others will do the same.
- The illusion that other people are responsible in some way for our happiness. Cognitive research shows us that we are largely capable of creating and sustaining our own mood regardless of circumstances. There are people in the most deprived and disempowered circumstances who find great joy in their daily existence, in small pleasures of perception of feeling or thought. If you think others responsible for your happiness, or if we think, “I must wait until I have X, until I achieve Y, and then I will be happy, you will waste a great deal of your life.” This is a fiction, and a pernicious one at that.
- The illusion that we are entitled to a life devoid of suffering or disruption. One of the great achievements of civilization has been the ability of our medicines and our institutions to create a more predictable life span. This, I believe, has generalized to a sense among affluent peoples that we are entitled to a life that is predictable across the board, that we should not suffer or be out of work or fail or have people we love die or grow ill. This illusion is powerfully sustained until one day we turn our heads and something terrible has happened and then we realize in the moment our terrible fragility and vulnerability and we are shocked. Live defiantly and confidently but do not fear suffering. When it comes, it changes us and often in deeply mysterious and useful ways.
- The illusion that life is fair, and that when it is not, we have a right to be outraged. We live in a culture now where many people are in a constant state of outrage about how “unjust” life is. When we are inclined to feel this way, I suggest that we stop and read history. When one does read history, she is amazed and humbled by the sheer cruelty, caprice, danger, and horror of most of human history. The life we lead each day in terms of comfort, convenience, and possibility is beyond the comprehension of kings and queens even one hundred and fifty years ago. Am I saying that one ought not to fight for justice when he sees injustice? Of course not. But it is the surprise, the anger that the world is unjust that drains the soul. We might benefit from accepting the existential reality of the world and work to change it as we see fit. Don’t burn your strength condemning God and fortune that it is not the way you think it “should” be. When you think this way, ask yourself, “Where does the “should” originate?” What gives us the power to think in terms of “should”, particularly regarding the behavior or thoughts of others.
- The illusion that we can control the future by worrying about it endlessly. It is prudent to take precautions and to make reasonable plans for the future, but to think that by living in the future moment to moment we can control the outcome is a fallacy. The future does not exist so how might it be controlled? This is the very essence of anxiety, the irrational belief that if one stops worrying, the thing about which we worry will happen. Even more sadly, an obsession with the future leads us away from a spiritually rich and satisfying encounter with the present. One need only reflect upon the modern tendency to check our smart phone every ten minutes for some evidence that something is happening or about to happen that we might miss, the anxious intuition that we are on the verge of some momentous change if we just keep checking. In so doing we look right past the living, breathing souls in front of us to perseverate on some imagined incoming mail that will change our lives or confirm our hopes. See the things in front of us. Love them.
- The illusion that there is one “correct” choice for us in regard to our career, our college, our job, our romantic partner, and if we don’t make the right choice, our lives will be damaged in some way. This is a common fallacy and leads to an enormous increase in anxiety. You will have many choices, and it seems to me that we make a choice with conviction, and our faith and dedication to that choice, be it love or work, makes it the “right “ one. If it fails, ultimately, then we recommit to another and do so with purposeful resolve, but in a world of thousands of choices, it is absurd to assume there is one correct one. Remember that with every choice, we close off an analgous one. If I choose to love a spouse, I am willingly choosing not to love all the many others who might have been a spouse, perhaps even a better one. Contemplating this is a path to madness, surely.
- The illusion that other people’s lives matter more than our own, that their achievements somehow eclipse ours. The reality is that in this life many, many people spend hours each day following the existential minutia of celebrities, politicians, billionaires, artists, and other famous people on a plethora of imbecilic media feeds. This creates a sense of diminished purpose, for we tend to be drawn away from the power of our own lives. Whatever work we settle down to eventually is precious. Don’t spend a minute envying someone else. We have no idea what others’ lives are like, and to gaze at them with wonder is to act like a child. With what moral compass do we decide that this person’s life matters more than another’s. See your work, your love and devotion as the center of your existence. Let the media grind its wheels and its fortune extolling the worth of strangers to an insecure population of cultural critics. The reality is that we have only this one wild and precious life to live, and it is ours and ours alone to make sacred.