October 12, 2012 8:54 pm

Should we run away from reality?

The desire for truth has its limits, and few would choose a life without any illusions if it meant abject misery
An illustration by Laura Carlin©Laura Carlin

The Sage

Regular readers might have noticed that I often talk about confronting reality as though that were a good thing. Could it not be a philosopher’s bias to assume that it is better to live in the gloomy shadow of dark truths than in the artificial light of pleasing falsehoods?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think not. But justifying the commitment to truth is not easy. You could try claiming, for example, that truth is the foundation of freedom and happiness. But while this is generally the case, it is not always so, and if the reason to embrace truth is that it sets us free or makes us happier, then we have just as good reason to run away from it when it doesn’t. If the purpose of truth is to make life better, then truth is no more than the hand-servant to human wellbeing, required to leave the room at sensitive moments.

So it seems that to really prize truth, you have to value it for its own sake. But why would anyone take such an abstract idea as the guiding principle of life? Aren’t love and contentment both warmer, more vital features of human existence than raw veracity?

Philosophy has no knock-down argument to justify an unqualified commitment to truth. What it can do is make us carefully attend to what we think we value and clarify how much we really do so. When we do that, I think most people see they have a very clear desire not to live a lie, even if that makes life more difficult. This desire for truth has its limits, of course. Few would choose a life without any illusions if it meant abject misery, and some are even quite open about preferring not to know about terminal illnesses, spousal infidelities, or friends’ transgressions. But most of the time, truth matters, whether it makes us feel better or not. Running away from reality is, therefore, something most people want to minimise, rather than avoid completely. It was T.S. Eliot who said: “Humankind cannot stand very much reality.” True, but nor can it tolerate evading too much of it either.

The Shrink

The Audience, a television show in which individuals let 50 strangers pronounce on a dilemma whose resolution has so far been elusive, sounds like an unpromising way to deal with a problem. It is strangely compelling, however, because of the insight into how members of the public reason about decisions and motives.

The concluding episode showed 28-year-old Anthony from Liverpool trying to decide whether to leave his office job and go travelling. At first the audience members think this a no-brainer, but a bit of delving leads them to conclude that Anthony would probably benefit more from emotionally processing some traumatic events from his childhood and making changes to his situation at home than from “running away” to Asia.

That may well have been the right answer for Anthony. It’s easy but often naive to act on the assumption that a change of location will result in issues magically disappearing, and to imagine that leaving will spare us the hard grind of confronting past traumas and trying to repair damaged relationships.

Of course, there is nothing stopping Anthony dealing with the past and going travelling. It’s perfectly possible to have both unresolved issues and a genuine desire to travel. Before making a potentially life-changing decision, however, it’s certainly worth getting some kind of grip on your problems and trying to disentangle things a bit.

But sometimes, leaving is the right thing to do, even if we don’t have a clear grasp of the future. One of the most dramatic instances of this would be fleeing from an abusive relationship. Even in less traumatic circumstances, just getting away can at times be a positive move. If we’re stuck in a really unproductive situation and cannot see the way forward, a complete change of environment might help us to gain the perspective we need to deal with the situation. Call it running away if you will, but perhaps it would be better seen as a tactical retreat.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England. To suggest a question, post below or email shrinkandsage@ft.com

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