Reality noun1. The world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them. 2. A thing that exists in fact.1
I doubt I would get much argument about the singular importance of acknowledging reality as a prerequisite for mental health. With delusional thinking, on the other hand, one firmly holds onto a belief that contradicts reality. Acknowledging truth and reality is also a fundamental principle of spiritual health.
Reality can be painful, and the human psyche sometimes takes action to mitigate the pain or avoid what seems unbearable. We use denial to reject what is true. We rationalize our beliefs or actions by asserting plausible arguments as a way of steering away from the truth. We might project our feelings on someone else as a way of avoiding ownership of them.
Rarely, a person unconsciously resorts to dissociation, where one disconnects from the real world and from who they are. Dissociation allows them to avoid dealing with disturbing thoughts, feelings, or memories. More commonly, we compartmentalize and treat the beliefs and behaviors we have in one area of our lives differently from the rest of ourselves. It’s as if that part of us is a different person. Imagine a man who is affable and pleasant at work but goes berserk with road rage in traffic. Or the person who acts saintly at church but turns into an evil twin when she returns to secular activities.
What would happen if we involved others in the compartmentalization process? Reality has a way of working its way back into our lives, and if we can get others to participate in our compartmentalization, we might avoid the consequences of our position or achieve other gains: political power, wealth, recognition, or position. For example, consider the stance people take to promote abortion. Contrary to scientific fact, common sense, and everyday experience, pro-abortionists must act as if a baby growing within a mother is an inhuman non-person until he or she comes to full gestation and is born. Suddenly, then, the fetus becomes a person!
Eugenics, the science of improving the human population through breeding to select desired hereditary characteristics, was used as justification by the Nazis for exterminating groups of people they considered genetically inferior. How was it possible so many “sane” people could take part in killing the innocent?
We are social beings and our cultural environment can influence our thought and behavior. In the absence of an absolute moral standard, our social milieu can redefine what we see as normal and true. Basing moral decisions on the beliefs of a social group is called relativism.
Over the past decades, we’ve also seen the rise of subjectivism— where each person defines their personal truth. Subjectivism allows someone to deny any absolute reality and adopt the nonsensical situation where two mutually exclusive positions are considered true at the same time.
How is this different from the psychotic who believes he is Abraham Lincoln? I see two differences. One reason is that the decision to embrace non-reality is a conscious, and not unconscious, one. Second, when those around us are caught up in the same delusion, we lose the ability to recognize our departure from reality. These reasons might earn the subjectivist recognition as an unwitting victim or fool, but not a psychotic.
Science is the study of the physical and natural world using a process we call the scientific method. This approach uses careful observation and measurements to describe phenomena and then applies this information to formulate hypotheses. Scientists then test their hypotheses through experimentation and additional observation.
For centuries, scientists have accepted the existence of a supernatural reality. They have also recognized their limited capacity to conduct a study of the supernatural using the scientific method. It’s not that they would say the supernatural doesn’t exist, but that the scientific method was not suited to its study because of the limits of observation and an inability to control experimental variables.
In more recent years, we have seen a major philosophical shift where scientists now assert that there is no supernatural or spiritual dimension. These scientists would also assert that any observed phenomenon in nature cannot have a supernatural explanation and any data that suggests otherwise must be rejected outright. As a scientist, I find the blatancy of the built-in bias and departure from the scientific method astounding. While science cannot make any definitive statements about the supernatural world and God, it can still observe the natural effects of supernatural causes. Scientists who pursue these studies, however, are subjected to ridicule, lose research funding, and are otherwise discredited in the scientific community.
What happens when the unsuspecting public, unaware of the inherent and self-imposed limitations of science, attribute to it a god-like quality that now makes it THE purveyor of reality and truth? Can we become more disconnected from reality than we already are? You bet.
Get Back in Touch with Reality
The reality principle is this: If you want to have psychological and spiritual health, stay connected to reality; stay connected to the truth. Every time we lose touch with reality, particularly in the spiritual dimension, we lose something of ourselves.
Use science to help you understand the reality of the physical world, but be wise and learn to recognize when you’re fed conjecture, unprovable hypotheses, and biased information.
Have high regard for the supernatural reality, looking to the Bible to learn about God’s truth and how it intersects with our natural world. But here, too, you’ll need to exercise caution because even with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are quickly confused and misled. That’s just one of the reasons I am so thankful for the Catholic Church, who has carried Sacred Tradition and has provided teaching authority through apostolic succession. On our own, we would fall into error.
Live neither in a past that you cannot change nor in future that has not yet arrived. Instead, live in the present. Learn from the past while you work in the present to create a better future.
Be on guard against your capacity for self-deception and using defense mechanisms. Watch out for compartmentalization, especially when moving between the spiritual and secular. Resist the pressure to cave to relativism and subjectivism. Instead, become a person of integrity, where one lives the truth at all times and in all places.
1“Reality,” OED, Oxford University Press, accessed April 24, 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/reality.
The Reality Principle is part of a series on practices that promote psychological and spiritual health.