(Psychological Paradoxes & Puzzles — 4)
The Paradox of Trying to Run from and of Trying to Stay within Reality
Some people have a goal of facing reality and living with the awareness of reality. Others think reality is too painful, too awful, and their goal is to turn from it and live in an happier world. Sometimes these goals are conscious and sometimes unconscious. The first type seems to correspond to what William James called tough-minded people, and the second to what he called tender-minded people (and maybe to what Jung called the extrovert and the introvert).
However there are two reasonable assumptions that generate a paradox that undermines the goals of people of both types.
Assumption 1: Some reality is too painful for anyone to face head on, as it were. To face it you have to have some sort of thought or world view or belief that tough-minded people call fantasy or illusion. For example, there are some forms of torture that may be too painful to even imagine. The mind is built not to be able to face such painful thoughts without "shutting down." The only way to picture it at all, to hold it in mind, is to have an idea of life after death or some religious view about the place of pain in life and how to bear it. If you have this kind of view, a view that tough-minded people think of as fantasy, as rubbish, then you can begin to visualize some of the horrible possibilities in life. You need a filter to view reality, but the filter can distort it.
It follows from this assumption that there is no way to face reality without illusions or, to put it another way, the only way to face reality if to turn from it.
Assumption 2: In order to turn from a painful reality, you have to see it and to see it is painful. To continue to spend the energy to avoid it, you have to have a picture of it somewhere in your memory.
So the other side of the paradox is that, to avoid reality you have to see it and keep it somewhere in your mind.
So the overall paradox is that to escape reality you have to face it and to face it you have to escape it: It is impossible either to fully face reality or to full turn from it. Once you have a glimpse of the horrors of life, you can never forget them completely nor can you ever remember them completely.
[The second part of this paradox was recognized by Freud. He pondered on the problem of repression. To repress some painful mental content and to keep it repressed, there has to be some awareness that there is a painful conflict, but then repression is not complete.]
To put all this another way, to stay awake to the full drama of reality you have to dream, but to dream you have to remain awake to the full drama of reality.
That is, we are all, necessarily, seeing reality fully and, at the same time, lost in our dreams — both — all the time.