Choose Your Illusions with Care

December 16, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Choose your illusions with care, tend them with wisdom, and may The Farce be with you.”  With this blessing (curse?) I end my classes each semester. It encapsulates the approximate takeaway I wish for the students. The first clause references the vital lie of culture and also alludes to our freedom in managing it. The second clause echoes the theme of freedom and points to the ongoing nature of the task. The final clause is a tongue-in-cheek nod to The Force in Star Wars and, for us, an intuition of benevolence. Sometimes the class is psychology and we’ve watched Flight From Death. Sometimes it is comparative religion and Becker has been viewed in light of the Buddhist teaching on impermanence. Sometimes it is philosophy and we’ve explored “the psychologist Kierkegaard.”  Exposing students to such powerful messages gives a teacher pause. To what end?  What is the ultimate point and value of presenting these ideas?  This concern is one that we all engage.  It was brought home to me recently by a video on the parody website The Onion. The video featured an imaginary group of scientists who had taught a lowland gorilla awareness of its mortality. “When we began, Quigley was a normal happy ape.” Over the course of his education he is brought to the point of a panic attack as the scientists rejoice. While incredibly funny, for someone teaching Becker, the video is somewhat unnerving.  Socrates taught that the unexamined life is not worth living, but any number of Woody Allen characters have taught us that the same holds true of the over-examined life.

As I’ve ruminated on this question for a few days I find myself dividing my answer into two categories, the personal and the collective. On the personal level, I’m less sure of the answer, less inclined to mess with Quigley the normal happy ape. Since we will never get to a state of complete unrepression and will forever live with a tacit, qualified acceptance of our illusions, might it not be better to leave well enough alone? I go back and forth on this side of the question. It is when I turn to the collective side that I see the indisputable value of teaching Becker. Awareness of his “science of evil” is not a luxury. Quigley the normal happy ape in The Onion video does not have the capacity for environmental devastation or thermonuclear warfare. We do. Becker’s insights provide us with the tools of self-awareness that we need to harness the better angels of our nature.

The current generation of Millennials provides some hope that we may be able to deal with our self-destructive tendencies. As a generation, they follow the much maligned Generation X whose nihilistic persona alarmed their elders. In response, the Millennials have been nurtured much like the GI Generation that followed the Lost Generation eighty years ago. They have been raised as a protected generation. Endless rounds of sports and school activities have kept them busy and engaged. School uniforms, curfews, and “baby on board” bumper stickers have kept them safe. “Helicopter parents” have hovered over their academic progress. They have engaged in an unprecedented amount of service activity through their schools and religious institutions. As a result, these Millennials have a great capacity to cooperate and work together, to engage the big projects that face humanity. At the same time they excel at the everyday grunt work necessary to see a job through. They recognize the heroic nature of the mundane, something that often escapes my own Baby Boomer cohort.

A shadow side of the cooperative personality of the Millennials is a key reason for presenting Becker’s insights on symbolic immortality. The dark side of cooperation is sheepish conformity. It is a conformity that was described by Erich Fromm during the 1950s as the GI Generation came of age. Consumer and entertainment culture certainly functions to keep all of us unconscious. This is an environment where symbol systems can work as an emotional shorthand that bypasses reason. Further, symbolic shorthand is the currency of manipulators and demagogues. This is all the more reason for today’s youth to be well versed in the seductiveness of symbolic immortality and the possibilities for constructive heroism. Regarding my teaching dilemma, a “confusion about heroism” is the price that must be paid for an awakening humanity. The role of the educator in all this is daunting. Best to trust in The Farce.



  1. Sooner or later, it is better to swallow hard and accept death than continue in the cultural lies that the individual can only sporadically, if ever, live up to. I agree with Becker that a lot of the emotional problems with individuals and societies stem from the greater and greater need to hide from the truth, through increasing fabrication, until it all blows up in your face.

    • I agree with what you say Diana. T
      he tough part for me is gauging how the material is hitting 20 different individuals. Adolescents are a maddening mix of invincibility and vulnerability

  2. I hope you’re right about the Millennials — but do you have any evidence for your optimism?

    • Most of this generational insight comes from Srauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning. I certainly directly observe the classic traits of a ‘hero’ generation. As far as how they will respond, only time will tell. A German ‘hero’ generation fell in line with the Nazis. I’m still waiting for a trigger event to mobilize not just the Millenials, but all of us. As a society we have yet to hit bottom. We’ll see how Millenials respond when that happens.

  3. I tend to wrap up my courses in a similar way… we get into Becker, but I end things with Camus – essentially suggesting that we might carry this burden by renouncing hope while not allowing ourselves to fall into despair… walking that existential tightrope, it you will.

    It is interesting that in my fourth year undergraduate classes, only a handful of people even seem capable of ‘getting’ the whole picture. It still remains an abstract or purely rational set of concepts for most people, which really speaks to the resilience of our cultural illusions, and moreover, the challenges we will face in trying to get the general population to understand what is happening.

    • I’ve never considered ending with Camus. A hope in a generalized cosmic benevolence doesn’t seem too bad to me. The trick is to stop there and not bring various immortality ideologies in the wake. Regarding the students ‘getting it’, I agree with Diana and Don below. At the high school ,level they get an introduction, an unsettling that may provoke them to take another look when they encounter Becker again down the road

    • I don’t know if this is a possibility for your classes, but I’ve had some success covering these themes in an actual cemetery. The setting brings it home. i’ve developed a set of cemetery exercises that I belive is available through the EBF

  4. Even if the students “don’t get it” at the time, some may store the info in the back of their minds to re-examine it sooner and/or later. I know that some of the info that was imparted to me in college began a lifelong examination of the world around me. This was emphasized when I retired and had some time to read and contemplate without the continued demands and illusions of our culture. After all, the students in your class chose to be there, so don’t despair!

    • and as the Buddha responded to Mara, ” Some will understand.’

      Thanks for the comments. It really helps to know other folks are on the same general track

  5. I completely agree w/ Diana’s response below. During college, I was a completely dogmatic Christian fundamentalist, and I know that some of my philosopher professors didn’t think they were getting through to me in their efforts to impart the teachings of Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, etc. But I paid attention, even when I didn’t think I was. In the years following college, I continued mulling over their lessons, and their lessons, and the writings of these great philosophers began to really penetrate. I still (now 10 years since graduation) often think about many of the things my professors said in class. I’m a different person because of them — even though at the time I thought they were hopelessly lost and didn’t much stock in them.

    BTW, your classes sound amazing. I envy your students.

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