Humanist Perspectives: issue 153: The Real Deal

The Real Deal
by Goldwin Emerson

Some of the most interesting and happiest times of my life have been when I have watched my own children and grandchildren struggle with new ideas. Often, it was a matter of them trying to incorporate new or slightly different thoughts and experiences into the concepts which they already had. This process involved decisions about what was real and what was imaginary.

Recently, my three-year-old granddaughter, Kendra, and I went to see the statue of a giant elephant in St Thomas, Ontario. This elephant, called Jumbo, was a circus performer, who on September 15, 1885 was killed by a train locomotive as he was running wildly down the tracks in search of freedom.

Kendra, who lives in St Thomas, had heard this sad story of Jumbo‘s fate, and conceptually she knew that what we were seeing was simply a likeness, a concrete statue, not a real live elephant. When I asked her if she would like to have her picture taken with Jumbo, she happily agreed.

So I hoisted Kendra up onto the five-foot-high concrete platform on which the statue stood and I told her that I needed to get further away in order to get all of the huge Jumbo statue into my picture. Her anxiety increased as I walked across the street in order to take the picture. She began to wonder what she should do if the statue should suddenly come to life. Should she run across the street to where I was, or should she run to our car for protection? And could she get down off the high platform by herself? Of course, I assured her of what she already knew. Jumbo was only a statue and statues are not living. Nonetheless, Kendra found some comfort in repeating what I had just told her. She wanted to be sure that she understood me correctly. Later, her anxiety decreased as we got into our car and drove safely away from Jumbo’s statue. When we arrived home, she recounted her experience with Jumbo to her mother and grandmother in happy tones, and with some sense of achievement. She wanted these two important people to know that she had stood up on that high platform alone with Jumbo to have her picture taken.

I tell this story because much of our own lives, both as children and as adults, is devoted to trying to distinguish the differences between what is real and what is imaginary or fanciful. This is particularly true for most humanists who try to make sense out of life. We are not content to simply accept everything that we see or are told even though it may sound comforting and pleasant.

We manage a delicate balance between reality and fantasy. While we want to pursue truth through logic, reason, rationality and critical thinking, there are benefits to be gained by experiencing the imaginative, the creative, the hopeful and the joyful side of human life.

Sometimes we purposely invent ways of taking ourselves out of the reality of daily experiences. We may seek distractions in movies, theatre, comedy, art, fashionable clothes, or music which can sweep us away from work, pain, worry, or disappointment. Of course, if these experiences are chosen with care they can bring us in closer touch with reality. But it is important, even while enjoying these pleasures, to keep in mind that in some instances they are not the stuff of everyday life. And there are some diversions that are downright harmful. These are the ones which mask the distinctions between the real and the unreal so cleverly that one can be caught up in their grip so firmly that there is little chance of escaping.

Many people, and I am one of them, enjoy the excitement of a gambling casino. Often there are free drinks, money flows liberally from the hands of the hopeful into an impersonal slot machine that is designed to win out in the end, provided one remains hopeful long enough to continue to invest in one’s flight of fancy and dreams. It is true that from time to time, and often for a very short period of time at that, the gambler may win. When the gambler wins, lights flash and bells clang to let everyone know that one of their fellow gamblers has ‘won.’ But the gamblers should know the reality is that in the long run she and he will lose everything unless they are prepared to set limits on their unrealistic hopes. In the end, the machine that takes their money does not care whether or not it was their grocery money, their rent, or money set aside for their family vacation, or for paying their utility bills.

Drinking alcohol is a bit like gambling. I, like many of you, enjoy a drink. When the ambience is right, drinking seems to set the tone for friendship, recreation and loosened tongues. For a short time, alcohol makes for fewer worries and introduces a touch of unreality. For a while we don’t feel that we need to, or even want to, look at reality. But, like the gambler, if we are not prepared to set limits, the truth is that in the long run we will end up poor, sick, or dead and the producers and purveyors of alcohol will not care.

Humanism can assist us in separating the real from the imaginary in the following ways: humanism begins with the idea that as humans we are capable of improving our own lives. By caring and thoughtfulness, by critical thinking, by a healthy scepticism about what is real and true and what is not, we can make progress in solving our problems. Such challenges as war, poverty, overpopulation, pollution and starvation are in the first analysis each human-made problems, and if they are to be solved the solutions will of necessity be human made. In keeping with humanism, the solutions will embody a healthy respect for truth, ethics and compassion towards our fellow human beings and towards other life forms with which we share this planet.

As I reflect upon my earlier comments about Kendra and the huge statue of Jumbo the elephant, I am impressed by the awareness that her concerns for her well-being are not very different from those of adults. Jumbo represents her wonderment at new ideas that are over-powering, magnificent, unpredictable, mysterious, or all of these. I feel privileged to have had a small part in helping her distinguish between the real and the imaginary without destroying her sense of awe and excitement, and I am pleased that I had this opportunity to practice one of the principles of humanism albeit at an elementary level.

Goldwin Emerson is Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario.