by: Paul W. Sharkey
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Why do we generally think of disillusionment as something painful, dreadful, and to be avoided yet enlightenment as pleasant, good and to be pursued? As far as discovery of “the truth” is concerned, they both amount to the same thing.
Perhaps the difference lies in the difference between a sense of having lost something as opposed to having found it. Episodes of enlightenment are usually typified by “Ah hah!” experiences accompanied by feelings of new-found confidence, clarity and liberation. Disillusionments on the other hand are frequently, if not always, characterized more by feelings of anger, depression, and increased insecurity. Enlightenment: “Oh how bright and insightful I am.” Disillusionment: “How could I have been so gullible or stupid?”
Learning that there is no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny is usually not a happy affair not because the presents stop coming or the decorated eggs are no longer there but rather because we learn that we had been deceived into believing something that wasn’t true and that that deception was perpetrated by those we hoped to be able to trust the most. So it is too with religion.
The story of baby Moses finds its parallel in other ancient, distant, and “foreign” religious traditions. December the 25th has more to do with the winter solstice and the religions of Persia and Rome than the birth of Jesus; the origins of Easter are just as much a product of ancient myths and pagan beliefs. Even the ideas of death, resurrection, and the triumph of a man being the “Son of God” and becoming a divine healer and savior are not original or unique to the popular religions of today. Finding out the “facts” about what one has believed and placed one’s trust in in such instances can certainly be at least as painful as finding out about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, so much so that many actively avoid and resist it.
Deceptions are perpetuated for many reasons ranging from pure maliciousness or the desire to have power and control over others to ignorance or even a benevolent, if misguided, desire to make others happy. No doubt stories about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are motivated more by the latter. Where exactly those of more “sophisticated” religious beliefs fall is a much more complicated matter and one about which one could find examples from any or all of these other less altruistic sources.
As a philosopher, what I find most interesting is not so much that this or that story is found out not to be original or to be false but rather that such stories seem to be endemic and ubiquitous in human nature. While no particular story may speak the truth, taken together and as a whole, they do seem to speak to a truth about us as human beings. Namely: the all too human desire to be saved from ourselves. Perhaps this is the greatest disillusionment which is also and at once an enlightenment.
As a child, once one gets over the shock of finding out there is no Santa Claus, but rather that mommy and daddy have been giving us those presents all along, we too are freed to share in the activity of giving to others. Once we find out there isn’t an Easter Bunny, we too get to share in the activities of coloring eggs and arranging Easter baskets and making our home a prettier and more joyful place. Once we find out that there is no-one else who is going to do it for us, we get to do it ourselves. We get to take responsibility for ourselves and each other free of the tethers of our own particular tribal stories, personal superstitions and clannish prejudices.
Disillusionment is a wonderful thing. It literally means no longer living under an illusion. Once one gets over and past the need to put one’s complete trust and security in the stories of one’s own particular time, tribe or clan (or those of any other), then one is freed to pursue life with true enlightenment to be able to “lighten-up” about it and a self from which one no longer needs to be “saved.” Disillusioned enlightenment! As Plato observed: There is no shame in a child fearing the darkness though there is for an adult who fears the light!
- cf. the Great Classical Indian Epic: Mahabharata
- E.g., cf. Mithrism et al.
- E.g., cf. Eostar et al.
- E.g., cf. Mithras, Osiris, Imhotep, Aesclepius et al.
- Plato: Republic