Positive illusions



Few things shake a person as much as seeing their own blood. I don’t mean a small cut or scrape, I mean an impressive loss that finds you questioning just how much of the stuff you actually have to spare. I’m not squeamish, and, as an old wrestling coach, I’m not foreign to blood; but a recent event found me in the ER undergoing an uncomfortable procedure to stop a rather spectacular bleed. I’m starting to realize that red flow of life-supporting fluid was more like a teacher’s red ink, poured over my misconception of what I can and cannot control.

There exists in psychology (and philosophy) what are known as positive illusions; these are attitudes or perceptions we might hold of ourselves that do not comport with reality, yet they define the way we see ourselves. They are, in actuality, self-deceptions that allow us to cope with the world around us; and when these illusions crash into reality, desolation and confusion result (as well as other unhealthy reactions). One of the positive illusions is the Illusion of Control: The tendency to deceive ourselves into believing we can control things that are simply beyond our abilities. Everyone experiences this at some point, but health scares tend to confront our self-perceptions in ways that few other experiences can.

I’m in my 50s. My Body Mass Index (BMI) is 21, and, until four weeks ago, I began most days with a 3-mile run followed by an hour of heavy weight training. At lunch, I’d skip a meal and walk four miles. I was a very fit 50-something; and because of this, I began to deceive myself that my entire body was healthy – despite knowing I have some chronic medical issues. I have an almost-five-year-old daughter, and my motivational motto has been, “Alive at 25.” In other words, I work out and eat well so that I’ll be around at least until my beautiful girl turns 25, and I hope a few more thereafter. The fitter I became and the stronger I grew, so, too, did my illusion of control keep pace. I knew that I would die one day, but that was seemingly a long time off. Then, God’s red ink graded the paper of my illusion, covering it in red marks – letting me know that I had failed an assignment.

In contrast, my Pop used to wake up at 4 every morning to pray a couple Rosaries. Then, he’d drive to St. Roch, where he’d pray until Father Wilmoth opened the Parish prior for 6 a.m. Mass. At my Pop’s funeral, Fther Wilmoth joked, “I always thought that I could’ve slept in another hour if I had only given Steve a key to the Church.” Which one of us, my Pop or me, was in better shape?

It seems to me that our precarious journey through this Vale of Tears causes a lot of us to do things that we believe will insulate us against harm: We make our bodies strong; we build houses with alarm systems on them; we sign up for identity-theft-protection programs; we amass wealth, etc. Whereas these are good things if done in moderation and for the right reasons, they can also lead us to an illusion of control—believing our prudence can save us from ruin.

I haven’t been able to work out in almost a month, and I just started being able to walk a bit at lunch; but during my health downtime, I’ve begun praying a morning offering each day, reading my Bible again and truly praying for God’s help and healing. But I’ve also been more aware of the suffering of others, and I’ve offered up (as best I can) my fears, pains and frustrations for others in need. It is surprising how much more of a capacity I have for prayer now that I’m suffering—It’s not merely fear (although there’s enough of that); but there’s a real openness to things spiritual that wasn’t there in my hectic, workaday life.

Few things shake a person as much as seeing their own blood. In my case, I received a bright red admonition from God: “You’re not in control. I am. Trust me.”