Via The Credible Hulk on Facebook; image credited to Rainman of Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes
Fiction can be a good tool, and a temporary suspension of disbelief is integral to a lot of things: art, magic(k added for supplementary potassium), even basic human interactions – you tell yourself a story about other people being decent and kind, even though they’re probably not.
But part of using a tool is knowing that it’s a tool, and choosing when and how you use it – rather than letting your beliefs about that tool control what you do.
If you want to use the wrench of astrology to tighten your mental lugnuts… whatever. You might want to admit to yourself that it’s a plastic toy wrench, though – and you might also want to ask yourself how convenient it is that your problems just so happen to be fixable by using your favorite plastic toy wrench. Are there other problems that this tool can’t fix, and that you’re ignoring as a result?
The problem comes when someone cannot put down that tool.
They’re not just using a wrench to tighten their own mental nuts and bolts, they’re using it to hammer a nail, to hold a pen, to stir their food, to shake their client’s hand. They’re saying “The moon position means I can’t go to dinner with you.” They’re saying “The cards told me not to take that job.” They’re saying “I prayed on it, and I’m supposed to run for President.” They’re using it for everything – not just internal diagnostics and repair, but for guidance in how to do everything they do with and to everyone and everything else in the world. Tools help you do work, they say, so this is HELPING. But they’re never using any other tool, not even when it’s clearly more suited for the job. When this happens, it’s not a tool anymore, it’s a fetish object – one believed to have supernatural powers, and maybe its own will that the user must obey.
So they can’t put down that wrench, they can’t close the circle, they can’t drop character, they can’t stop. No matter how much harder it actually makes their life, they can’t stop, because they have the incontrovertible belief that their life is better than it would have been otherwise.
By all means, use fiction as a tool. Draw some tarot cards and see how you interpret them – and realize that your associations and interpretations will clue you in to your mental state in ways that may have hidden from you if you tried to look more directly. Or cast some yarrow stalks, or read some tea leaves, or flip to a Bible verse, or look at some inkblots, or shake a Magic 8-Ball. The human mind is incredibly skilled at denying things, even to itself, so sometimes you’ve got to play a game to figure out What Am I Thinking And Why?
And sometimes, just to buy yourself a few precious moments of peace of mind, you’ve got to absorb yourself into a narrative in which the world makes sense – whether you do so by sitting in a pew or under a yew. (Or making some stew, feeding a ewe, painting in blue, or wearing J. Crew. You do you.)
But if you can’t stop, can’t change, and can’t adapt, you’re not using the tool anymore. You’re letting it use you.
When your tool or your system-of-tools or your religion or faith or whatever starts telling you “BE AFRAID! SUFFER! EXPECT THE WORST! DO NOT DENY ME OR ELSE! ACCEPT THIS OR ELSE! DON’T YOU DARE STOP! IT’S BAD LUCK!” — ask yourself what you even have to lose. What do you have to lose by stopping, when it’s your belief itself that’s making you afraid, making you suffer, making you expect (and think you deserve) pain?
Obviously, pain is part of life, and if you only tell yourself the story about how you deserve only good and happy things, and anything that interferes with that is obviously unholy… that’s not a great coping tool, either. You’re still limiting yourself and telling a distorted story.
A key trait of humanity is our ability to look at the world and imagine it otherwise. It’s why fiction is even possible. And it’s wonderful and amazing that fiction can inspire us to change things about ourselves and the world around us. There are many ways to see reality, many possible beliefs, and – even at the risk of existential choice-paralysis – you’re probably better off cultivating the ability to perceive and engage with the world in MORE ways, rather than fewer.
But no matter how well you tell yourself the story, no matter how much it seems to help, no matter how accurate a story it tells… it’s a story. Nobody else perceives the world quite the same way as you do, so the story that works for you doesn’t work for everyone else, and as you age and as your situation changes, the same narrative probably won’t even keep working for YOU. That doesn’t mean you need to reject everything and become full of bitterness and nihilism, refusing to acknowledge anything as more than electrochemical signals in your brain. It doesn’t mean you have to become an automaton. It just means that things just happen, and there’s not necessarily meaning, reason, or sense in any of it. “Sense” is another story.
So do what works for you – but, if just to make sure it IS what works, if just once in a while… put down the duckie.