When did you stop believing in fairy tales?
You might say you never really believed such stories. Maybe you knew Snow White and Cinderella and the rest were impossibly unreal. Maybe you never even believed in Santa. Even if you’re among those who never believed — who always recognized a delightful fantasy instead — I’m certain you’ve believed other fairy tales.
In fact, you almost certainly believe fantastic fairy tales today. I probably still believe in some of my own. But I’ve been thinking today that we might need such illusions in order to survive — as individuals and as civil societies.
For much of human history, religions have imposed narratives onto societies. Whether you’re a religious person or you hate everything about religion, you have a lot to thank religion for. It’s popular today for anti-religious people to talk about how religions damage freedom of thought for individuals, but the truth is that the group or tribal identity of the past which was largely based on religion played a huge role in creating cohesive groups of people who were willing to trust one another and work together. Without religions — the good kind and the bad kind — I doubt humanity would have lasted this long.
In the modern world, a new version of religion is becoming dominant. There are many names for it, but the secular humanism which dominates modern thought is simply religion without a supernatural deity. If you don’t believe me, express cultural opinions which deviate from this modern norm and you will be metaphorically burned at the stake.
Some of those “expected opinions” are safer to criticize or lampoon, but you’ll still hear them expressed all the time with respectful tones worthy of scripture being recited.
Everyone is basically a good person.
You’ve heard this one, right? Everybody would be good and kind and would love each other if it weren’t for the evils of — insert whatever you hate here. People who believe this all have whipping boys to blame. It’s poverty. Or religion. Or big business. Or capitalism. Or communism. Whatever. The far-less-appealing truth is that the best among us is filled with evil at times — and the worst among us has some good in him. But that nuanced and realistic view doesn’t allow us to keep wearing the blinders we like to wear — about other people or about ourselves.
Nothing happens without a reason.
When something bad happens in your life — a child dies or you get a terrible disease or your house burns down — you’re likely to hear this from someone. The idea seems to be that you shouldn’t mourn the pain you’re going through. You should assume that there’s a higher purpose working everything out for good. That can be a pleasant thought, but there’s no evidence for it — especially when you pay attention to the millions and millions of people who have experienced just the opposite. How did that work out for European Jews in Nazi Germany, for instance?
Everybody has a duty to obey the government.
Have you ever asked yourself why you have a responsibility to obey politicians? Have you asked yourself what moral right these people have to take your money — whether you agree with what it’s being used for or not? Why is it their right to decide how much money to take from you? How is it moral even to take the first dollar from you against your will? You’ll hear that it’s “the will of The People.” So? What makes it moral for other people — whether it’s a single dictator or a majority — to make up rules for you to follow against your will?
Love will always find a way.
Really? If you love someone and stay true to pursuing that love, things will just magically work out in the end? The other person will love you and choose you? People will keep their promises and be honorable in the ways they end relationships that no longer work? The rational side of you knows better — through bitter experience — but people still repeat this all the time.
We all care about each other.
This is a big lie about every human society. If you look around at the people of your culture or city or tribe, you’re encouraged to see a unity which is an illusion. Wave a holy flag. Play a national anthem. Talk about how we all really love each other as fellow human beings. But don’t expect any of it to be true in a meaningful sense. Yes, you’ll see the occasional “feel-good story” to help you renew your faith in humanity, but that’s all it is — faith — and the daily reality of life in any culture is far different.
I started thinking about this last one tonight at dinner. I had reason to tell a couple of casual acquaintances about my medical experience Thursday. They both said the socially appropriate words for a few seconds — and then they were onto something else. It was as though my experience didn’t matter to them.
And then it occurred to me that they were perfectly normal. I was the silly one for expecting something different. They believed they should express concern, but it was just a social script. Of course they didn’t really care. It wouldn’t affect their own lives. If I had been in their position, I would have done exactly the same thing without thinking about it.
I was unconsciously believing the fairy tale that the people who smile and talk to me nicely actually care. Hardly any of them do. That’s not a criticism of them. There are simply too many of us in a modern society for us to care — beyond a superficial level — about everybody we know.
Maybe these fairy tales are necessary for us to live with each other. Maybe they’re necessary for an individual not to see the truth of human existence and become too filled with existential dread that he can’t go on living. Maybe none of us would last if we faced the truth all the time.
In his influential 1651 book commonly called “Leviathan,” English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that humans in their natural state can’t have civilized societies.
“In [the state of nature], there is no place for industry,” Hobbes wrote, “because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Emphasis mine.)
I disagree with Hobbes about a lot of his philosophical conclusions, but I think his point here suggests why we need to believe in our fairy tales. At least some of them.
We believe in fairy tales about love and goodness and duty and brotherhood, not because we have reasons to believe, but because the cost of not believing them might be too high.
You have your own core unreasonable “truths” which are fairy tales. I have my own. Many of my fairy tales involve love, because I need it so much it would destroy me to accept the truth which life shows me instead.
So should we be realists and ditch all the fairy tales? I suspect we would be far better off without some of them, but I also suspect life would truly be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” if we saw the absolute truth about everything. Where do we draw the line? Which do we choose to believe? I don’t have a good answer.
I guess we all believe whatever we have to believe to allow us to live among each other and to survive inside our own tortured souls. If we need a fairy tale to survive — to avoid realities that are too painful — maybe that’s a reasonable compromise. And if we never notice we believe fairy tales — and if we believe instead that we’re rational and reasonable — all the better.
I’d like to make an argument for being completely realistic and avoiding all the lies we tell ourselves, but I suspect life would be too painful if we did that.
Just choose your “true” fairy tales wisely.