William Riggs
Replace Your Grand Illusions

          In the early part of the nineteenth century, there was but one province of India not subject to British rule. The state of Kolhapur was instead governed by a rajah with more pressing problems than the threat of a British invasion, for his kingdom was routinely pillaged by a group of marauding bandits known only as “The Thugs.” They came by night to steal from the treasury, murder citizens, and lay waste to villages. On one occasion they even stole the rajah’s crown jewels and murdered his bodyguards. The ruler demanded that the culprits be found and brought to justice, yet The Thugs continued their onslaught and were never caught. The few who knew the ringleader’s identity would never tell until after his death. For the leader of The Thugs, and the rajah who went to great lengths to catch him, were one and the same person. The ruler who demanded the capture of his nemesis during daylight hours, by night donned the attire of a robber and stole… from himself.
         Like the Rajah, we often find within ourselves a strange compulsion to become our own worst enemy. The most frightening aspect of a Grand Illusion is the manner in which it sets in motion a set of self-destructive behaviors. Each Grand Illusion, with its corresponding Dominant Emotion and Phantom Fear, creates two sets of contradictory behaviors, one intentional, the other unintentional and often completely inexplicable to the person engaging in them. This push-pull tendency within all of us constitutes one of life’s most vexing and troubling mysteries. The Apostle Paul wrote almost two thousand years ago the following words:
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do…. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.”
         The Apostle did not mean to imply that he could never do what he thought was right and good, but that he couldn’t find within himself the power to consistently do so. Even Saint Paul struggled with the battle between intentional behaviors and unintentional compulsive ones. How much more likely are we to fight a similar battle?
The Conscious Behaviors
         The intentional behaviors are those which are consciously chosen as a strategy to combat your phantom fear. As discussed in chapter two, these usually constitute a mask, or a role-play. For example, one who feels insecure and therefore fears abandonment above all other circumstances, will predictably take on the persona of an enabler. He will adopt a pattern of behavior intended to make himself absolutely indispensable to a certain key person or perhaps several different persons. The spouse of an alcoholic will, in order to avoid being deserted, become the one upon whom the alcoholic depends for the continuation of the addiction. The enabler will, in turn, rely upon the alcoholic as the one person who cannot afford to desert him, hence the title, “codependent.” This codependent will lie to the addict’s boss, keep up appearances with the neighbors, provide alibis, and nurse the drinker back to sobriety after each binge.
          This symbiosis from Hell reinforces the weaknesses of each and makes both people worse, but curiously helps them feel less threatened. Similarly, a person carrying the illusion of inadequacy will most fear failure, and will consequently tend to become an over-achiever, intent on holding failure at bay with an obsessively intense work schedule. Such people often neglect their families, key relationships, even their health in order to ensure career success. In their eyes others can see a desperate need for self-validation, and the obsessive fear that someone else might be seen as even more successful. Such fears are the soil in which these intentional compensatory behaviors, even obsessive-compulsive ones, sprout and thrive.
          For the same reason, a battered wife will be hesitant to report her husband’s assaults, knowing that his imprisonment would bring her what she fears most: abandonment. Though she inwardly feels more secure because her husband has not been dragged away from her in handcuffs, her decision not to press charges actually places her in far more serious jeopardy of losing life or limb. Meanwhile, the husband beats his wife to avoid what he fears most: appearing, even if only to himself, weak. Whenever the circumstances of life cause him to feel helpless he demonstrates his strength by thrashing those closest to him. While friends and neighbors could simply avoid him or call the police, his own children and wife are more-or-less trapped by their familial and financial ties to him. And so the wife and kids, being smaller, vulnerable, and unable to easily leave, are convenient and unthreatening targets. Yet with each successive beating he draws closer to a day of reckoning.
         The telltale bruises he leaves, the shouting overheard by neighbors, and the whispers of his children to their closest friends inexorably move him ever closer to arrest and imprisonment, the ultimate expression of powerlessness. While the choices of the people described above to lie, to overwork, to inflict bruises on others, or to cover their own bruises with makeup are intentional, even if ill-conceived, they are more easily explained and understood than those whose root causes are more deeply buried in the subconscious mind.
The Subconscious Behaviors
          The greater mystery lies in the unintentional behaviors of the illusion-bearer, behaviors which almost inevitably tend to bring him what he most fears. As the prophet Job observed nearly four millennia ago, “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me!” The phantom fear has an overwhelming tendency to wrap itself in reality and beget itself. Like the Velveteen Rabbit or Pinocchio, its longing, even its destiny is to become real. In this way, the almost inescapable inertia of one’s dominant illusion in experienced: an illusion in motion tends to remain in motion, and if left unchecked becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Voila! The vexing illusion has now become a very painful reality. Like boomerangs, our illusions tend to return to their starting point with a deadly vengeance.
          It is a paradox of life that what you fear most, your subconscious mind will almost inevitably create. Attempting to protect yourself by wearing a mask sets in motion a series of behaviors and events that actually invite the very crisis the phony persona was intended to avert. My friend, Susan, described in Chapter Two is a classic example. While her normal mode was that of a tireless worker determined to please her boss (and everyone else, for that matter) by producing excellent results, there was also a troubling undercurrent of unintentional, subconscious behaviors designed to drive those same people away. Her determination to please led to a constant fawning that repelled almost everyone. Her excessive desire to please literally strangled the life out of her relationships. When people, for this very reason, began to avoid her she responded angrily, became sullen, and bought wholesale into her Grand Illusion: “I knew no one would ever accept me!”
          In truth (that is, in “Grand Reality”), almost everyone would have accepted her if she didn’t seem so desperate for acceptance! The effect of one’s Grand Illusion is to install the aforementioned fun-house mirror in the psyche, resulting in a distorted view of ourselves. And the full time occupation of the subconscious mind is to prove that the image in the mirror is accurate. The curious afflictions of anorexia and bulimia provide excellent examples. A woman with a nice figure is somehow convinced that she is severely overweight, and diets herself into near starvation. To any outside observer she is horribly thin, mere skin stretched over a human skeleton. But to the inside observer, her subconscious mind, she is still slightly too large and thus unattractive. Objectively, she was far more attractive at her prior weight, but by some mysterious mental acrobatics the fun-house mirror reflects back to her retina a quite obese woman. Day after day her friends, coworkers, spouse, and parents tell her that she’s too thin, but the illusion remains. Her phantom fear is that her imagined obesity might cause her to be rejected because of her supposed unattractiveness. And the behavior which was supposed to be the cure actually makes her unattractive, fulfilling the inertia of the illusion.
          Conversely, a person who is genuinely obese may recognize that the bulk of his or her challenges in life grow directly from this tendency to overeat. Repeated fad diets and cycles of activity and inactivity may cause the person’s weight to oscillate wildly throughout life. But inevitably, any lost weight is regained because the core problem, the “Grand Illusion,” has never been eliminated. In many cases, the tendency to put on weight is caused by the illusion that one will never be genuinely loved. Consequently, when a person has no “special someone” to love, he or she may lose weight (the intentional behavior) to attract someone. Then, whether the search for a mate is successful or not, the weight is added back on (the unintentional behavior). Why? Because the subconscious goal is to prove to himself or herself that he/she was never lovable to begin with. Even if the overweight person finds an authentic love relationship with someone who adores them, they generally respond by packing on more weight than ever. The act of gaining weight is a subconscious means of putting physical distance between them and their partner. The subconscious goal is to put on so much weight that the one who loves them will ultimately withdraw their love, fulfilling the inertia of the illusion.
          The overweight person sees himself or herself as unattractive, therefore the mind induces behaviors to ensure that this image is reinforced and confirmed as true. The fun-house mirror tells the illusion-bearer that he is unlovable, and therefore he is mysteriously driven to overeat until his lover rejects him. It is the eternal law of life that one can never live permanently in a manner that surpasses the image he or she sees in the internal mirror. That image, or “Grand Illusion”, creates a vortex which exerts an almost inescapable gravitational pull on the psyche. Day by day, year by year, a young man toils to escape his feelings of worthlessness. He works weekends, skips vacations, labors late into the night to build the life of his dreams. Yet there is a mysterious side to his personality that drives him to sabotage his own success. Like the people of ancient Babel, he builds his tower to the stars. But from time to time he finds himself driven by an unseen force to peck away at its foundation, somehow fearing the very success he craves. A popular bumper sticker reads, “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you work with a bunch of turkeys”. A more accurate adage might be, “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you perceive yourself to be turkey.”
          Efforts to escape a low self image by simply outworking the competition and soaring above them will fail to overcome the inertia of one’s Grand Illusion, because the conscious mind functions only during the waking hours, while the subconscious mind works around the clock. While the endeavor of the conscious mind is to improve the quality of one’s life, the full-time occupation of the subconscious mind is to prove that the image in the fun-house mirror is accurate. There is within each person a civil war being fought between the conscious desire to excel and the subconscious desire to make external reality match one’s Grand Illusion(s). The conscious self works valiantly to prove that the image in the mirror is false, while the subconscious mind toils just below the surface to confirm its accuracy. Some easily-discouraged souls never make a serious attempt to break free of the illusions that plague them. Quite the contrary, they use them as an excuse for failure, and as justification to demand sympathy or charity from friends, family, the government, or even strangers. Others vacillate between extremes of fighting the illusion and capitulating to it. Still others run from their illusions with a never-ending fury, scaling heights most only dream about, then come crashing back to earth with a shocking suddenness and finality. Even if the crash appears to make a person miserable, there is at least a sense of equilibrium and peace when society’s view of a person matches his own view of himself.
          Consider the case of O. J. Simpson. Why would a man so rarely blessed as he risk destroying it all by venting his rage on his ex-wife and an innocent bystander? The answer lies much deeper than the simple desire to exact revenge for unrequited love. The root cause was his Grand Illusion exerting a tremendous gravitation pull that dragged him down from his heights in order to create an inner balance, a world in which self-perception and that of others are one and the same. O. J. Simpson was raised in the ghetto of San Francisco. His nutrition-deficient diet led to rickets, which weakened his bones to the point that his legs began to bow severely even while he feet turned inward. His mother, unable to afford proper medical care, made him wear his shoes on the wrong feet, and then attached the tip of each shoe to metal rod which forced them to point straight ahead.
          By the time he reached elementary school, his legs were permanently bowed, his calves shockingly thin, his head too large for his body. Other children teased him relentlessly with nicknames like, “Water Head,” and “Pencil Legs,” which might actually be no worse than his real name, Orenthal. He joined a street gang known as the Gladiators, and three times his mother was forced to bail her young son out of jail. Afflicted deeply with the Grand Illusion of worthlessness, Simpson fought back. He rebelled against the illusion with an intensity rarely matched in this world. He became the first running back in NFL history to rush for 2000 yards in a single season, a sportscaster, product endorser, actor, multi-millionaire, and resident of a posh Los Angeles neighborhood.
         And then in one colossal moment, on June 13, 1994, he returned to the wasteland from which he had emerged decades earlier. Reduced again to poverty, the butt of jokes locked in a California jail cell for over a year he no doubt felt a peculiar blend of despondency and peace. Simpson experienced the exquisite pain and mystifying sense of satisfaction that comes only with congruency, the perfect alignment of the public reality and the private illusion. The agony of losing his fortune, home, career(s), income, and the adulation of millions is understandable, but it is the strange sense of peace that baffles. There is an odd sense that all is right with the world, even if circumstances are horrible, when outer reality matches one’s own inner perception. There is a palpable sense of satisfaction when an O. J. Simpson can say to himself, “I was right. I am just a worthless little boy from the ghetto after all.” Having consciously struggled to escape the ghetto, his subconscious mind eventually won out (as it almost always does), by returning him to a self-imposed ghetto-like existence. Even after his acquittal, he recklessly committed yet another felony and was returned to prison once more. Such is the momentum of an illusion, inherent in all six of life’s Grand Illusions.

William Riggs

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