The Locked Room at the Top of the Stairs

What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create…a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody – or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel. (Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)


Somehow people who were brought up in a religious background have managed to rationalize the extreme fantasy of those beliefs with their ability to cope in the so-called real world. They rely on prayer for cures and gods for solace, but they still employ bankers and mechanics. They know god healed their headache just as they know he won’t fix their flat time.

The type of compartmentalization that they work within every day, is a very interesting thing to do to your own mind. For instance, if prayer doesn’t work, if their sick child doesn’t get well or they don’t get a promotion at work even if they prayed, even if a church full or internet list full of people prayed, thus boosting the signal in case god was napping and didn’t hear only one person, then they resign that to god’s choice. If they applied the same requirements of their bankers or mechanics, however, they suddenly become edgy. If the bank told them the sudden loss of thousands from their bank account could not be explained, or if the mechanic couldn’t point to the used parts to verify their account of what they’d repaired, those same people will not take the statements on faith.

They are not really the fools that they make themselves out to be, however. If a hundred people of varying religious views, some Christians of various stripes, Muslims, Buddhists, and followers of animism, were placed in a room, they would somehow be able to negotiate that room, enjoy the contents of its cupboards, open its windows for the expected fresh air, and find the door and operate its latch as they exited. The shape of their particular fantasy about the unseen world has little to do with how even the most fanatical devout person negotiates their world.

Somehow they compartmentalize their views enough so that they are untroubled by the buzzing of their cultural inherited nonsense as they operate in the world. Somehow they know, whether they admit it or not, that those beliefs are better left out of their dealings with the actual phenomenological world. Like Tim Minchin asks us to consider in his song “Storm,” “I resist the urge to ask Storm / Whether knowledge is so loose-weave / Of a morning / When deciding whether to leave / Her apartment by the front door / Or a window on the second floor.” For all their talk of their fantasies, these people know what is real.

That some people have unsubstantiated fantasies in their heads is not in itself very interesting. Nearly everyone believes in some fantasy or other. The klansman has his belief in his innate unearned superiority, the misogynist is satisfied with his fantasies of ill treatment of women, and the priest will call upon unseen beings in supplication when his prurient desires have taken him too far. Such beliefs likely serve some function or other deep in human history and consciousness and there are thousands of psychologists studying the phenomenon. Some might say that it should scarcely trouble us if such people can operate in the world as though their minds were untroubled by balderdash and fairy tales.

My friend Val for instance, once told me a long and involved story in which the world around her was warped almost beyond sense, and only after I’d lost precious time did she mention that she’d been taking recreational drugs when she experienced the bizarre events she’d described. The entire experience became invalidated and the relation of the story was a waste of everyone’s time. Even if we’d both been drugged, there is no guarantee that we’d experience the same thing, and in that case, it merely becomes a pointless story. Val’s singular and unwitting experience is not problematic if she doesn’t ask us to smoke the pipe of her silly dope dream, or use it to interpret the world around her.

What is troubling, however, is the chance collision of the fantasy and the phenomenological world, and this collision is more common than we might think. The klansman can be found drunk on the Saturday night burning crosses, the misogynist enacts his beliefs upon the faces and bodies of nearby women and the priest will willingly prohibit a burgeoning population from the use of birth control and thus ensure their unending misery and starvation.

In that intersection of fantasy and the phenomenological world, people, depending on their fantasy and who they choose to inflict it on, may suffer quite considerably. We need look no further than the notion of white superiority which led to the genocide in what would come to be called North America. Somehow what is a very clear disconnect, a very necessary break between the compartmentalized fiddle and nonsense that all human cultures are heir to and the experienced world around them, breaks down in ways that can cause significant harm.

What is needed is some methodology that we might employ in order to evaluate the inherited flotsam from the flood of culture. Since we have been subject to fuzzy and even dangerous notions from our youth, and it is nearly impossible to reject that excreta, we need a system by which we can evaluate an idea’s effect on the world.

Fortunately, such a system exists. It is not mere chance—if we may return to that room filled with a hundred Confucians and Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, Wiccans and Animists—that they can negotiate the experienced world around them. Not only are they able to negotiate reality in a way that belies the faults that may corrupt their early reasoning, but oddly, they experience their reality in nearly the same way. Their experiences are similar enough that if someone were to commit even the minor social error of drinking from the toilet or opening the door for air instead of the window, they would be declaimed by their fellows. They would instruct the misbehaver in the proper way to negotiate in this quite straightforward world, all the while ignoring that their other, compartmentalized reality—the lens through which they see at least part of their world—would at the very least problematize this experienced reality, and in some cases, deny it utterly.

What this heterogeneous group cannot deny, however, is that they actually agree on the received reality of their senses with the others in the room. This is the basis on which we may build a consensus. While I would not argue that only shared experiences are valid, or that the world is not a magical place, I would ask that anyone who wishes to affect the experiential world around them, examine their reasoning for flaws born from compartmentalized thinking. If they wish to smell a rose because that gives them a certain ineffable joy, that is one thing. But if the klansman wishes to kill a black man, I would ask that he consider that his thinking—unconfirmed by the experiential world—may be invalid. I would like him to consider the logical and testable basis of his thinking. If he cannot reach a consensus within this room of a hundred of his peers from different religious backgrounds, even while they happily agree on the location of the door and the light switch, then his thinking may be flawed.

Unfounded opinions are common enough, and are on their own harmless, but when those unfounded opinions cause broad scale destruction, or harm to other beings, then the ideas need re-examining.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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