When I was three years old, I had an experience I’ll never forget. My mother had just prepared lunch for my brother and me, and a neighbor lady came running over, breathless, telling my mother some news. Mom went right to television and turned it on. This was unusual—she rarely watched TV. She set up ironing board in living room(!) so that she could iron while watching.
Stranger still, she seemed to have forgotten all about naptime. My brother and I sat on couch quietly, hoping that if we didn’t draw attention to ourselves she wouldn’t put us to bed. We needn’t have worried—Mom was completely caught up in what was on television.
From couch, we watched TV as a scene was played over and over…a man in a car with his wife, and then sudden pandemonium. I couldn’t make much sense of it. When man on TV was talking, there was a big photo of man in car behind him. In fact, whenever anyone was talking, there was that same photo of man with thick hair and toothy smile. My mother kept ironing, steam rising from my father’s shirts as she said, over and over, “Oh, God….oh, my GOD!”
And that is how, for next ten years of my life, I had an image of God as John F. Kennedy in a long white robe. Even when I realized what I was picturing, and remembered why I had that association, I couldn’t shake image. Even now, forty years later, I still find that mental picture popping up when I least expect it!
It’s fascinating to look at how we learn and what our minds store as knowledge. Do you have a JFK story? We all have stories in our heads of way things happened or how details fit together. The interesting thing is that they are, indeed, simply stories.
Fortunately, there’s nothing harmful about my childhood image of God. I didn’t start worshipping Kennedy family or anything like that. The entire fields of psychology and psychiatry are based on our early associations and stories we tell ourselves about way things are.
And what stories! We create our own histories in our heads, and sometimes it takes a great deal of counseling (or our own application of philosophy) to remodel our stories so that they help us see world in a more realistic way.
Plato had an interesting way of thinking about false beliefs and illusions. He developed an elaborate image of a cave in which all people are chained to floor and watching shadows on wall. He described a man who, escaping his chains, becomes first to venture outside cave. He comes to realize that shadows cast upon cave walls from light of fire bear little resemblance to outside world. He sees for first time that cave life is an illusion, and he races back to free his cavemates and show them real world.
Plato goes on to say that this is exactly what a philosopher does. When he tells his cavemates his strange tale, he is cheered by some and rejected by others. Some cave folks are just fine in that cave, thank you very much. They don’t need any other reality. Others are intrigued but hesitant, breaking free of their chains and stepping cautiously into sunlight.
The philosopher’s role is to continue in difficult but necessary work of freeing fellow captives and introducing them to a brighter world. His task is to help us wake up and recognize limitations we’ve constructed for ourselves.
We tend to like our illusions. It’s a pain to question them. It takes too much time, and then it messes up our carefully crafted ideas about life. Better to just sit there with our chains, staring at cave wall. We don’t think it’s so bad…some of those shadows are kind of nice. That fire feels pretty good. These chains, once you get used to them, are barely noticeable. And so it is in modern life.