Chapter Two: The Terrible Beauty of an Illusion

il·lu·sion ( -l zh n) noun. 1. An erroneous perception of reality. 2. An erroneous concept or belief. 3. The condition of being deceived by a false perception or belief.

dis·illu·sion·ment (d s -l zh n m nt) noun. The act of freeing someone from an illusion, or the state of being freed therefrom.

April 20, 1999 dawned as many other spring days in Littleton, Colorado. That sunny Tuesday morning was greeted by 60 degree temperatures and visions of summer break only three weeks away. Hundreds of students and faculty members of Columbine High School dressed, ate breakfast, and departed for classes under a grand, if mundane illusion that today would be just another school day. By noon they – and an entire nation – would be deeply disillusioned. Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shattered the veneer of tranquility that day with a hail of gunfire that left fourteen students and one faculty member dead, hundreds deeply shaken, and millions awakened – all too late – to a very sobering reality. The haunting fact is that the Columbine High School disaster could have – and should have — been avoided. The brewing catastrophe was allowed to fester and grow because previous school shootings had apparently not been deemed serious enough to effect a sea-change in public perception and law enforcement policy. High profile school shootings in Washington, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Georgia, California, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Kentucky in the previous three years alone had left 18 people dead and 33 wounded. But these events had apparently been easy to dismiss as aberrations, something that happens to others but could never happen to us. Despite the mounting avalanche of evidence to the contrary, the illusion prevailed. The two young men had left a lengthy and clear trail of evidence revealing their murderous intentions:

  • Police had been warned months earlier that Eric Harris had published a web site threatening to slaughter his fellow students.
  • Police knew that Harris had been making pipe bombs.
  • The boy’s parents had discovered detailed instructions for building a bomb in their garage.
  • Police had decided not to act on a search warrant for Harris’ home.
  • The two young assailants-to-be had produced a videotape for a class project depicting themselves wearing black trench coats while annihilating fellow students with machine guns and shown it in class!
  • They had spoken openly of guns and revenge and Adolph Hitler, reveling in the imagined glory of being members of “The Trench Coat Mafia.”
  • They told a fellow student the very morning of the attack, “I like you. Don’t go to school today.”

Yet everyone – parents, teachers, police, and classmates alike – clung stubbornly to their illusion of security, preferring their cheery fantasy over a less-than-pleasant reality. They were not so much deceived by the two murderers, who made only clumsy attempts to conceal their plan. On the contrary, the citizens of Littleton were living in denial; they had chosen to deceive themselves.

This same tendency to choose appealing illusions over a harsher reality is evident in the daily lives of most people, with four distinctly different results: negligence, waste, carelessness, and harmful decisions.
Negligence The first negative consequence of living uncritically with your illusions is negligence. The good citizens of Littleton, Colorado did not suffer because of anything they had done. They suffered because of what they failed to do. By living comfortably with their illusion of security, they were lulled into inactivity even when decisive action was clearly needed. Each successive bit of evidence that a massacre was being planned was either discounted or ignored. This is the nature of an illusion. It is sustained, nurtured and perpetuated until there is a “moment of truth.” This flash of insight that exposes the illusions as frauds either comes in the form of an individual’s willingness to challenge his view of the world in light of mounting evidence, or in the form of an event so powerful that it becomes impossible to cling to the false belief any longer. That cataclysmic event at Columbine came in the form of the worst school shooting spree in American history. Similar, but less shocking, examples include a man who ignores his high cholesterol level, or a woman who conveniently chooses not to think about the small lump in her breast. Nagging doubts are repeatedly swept under the rug to be thought about another day. Small pains are explained away and quickly forgotten once they have subsided. In both cases, there will eventually be a moment of truth, a day of reckoning which will come either in the form of a precautionary physical examination in the near term, or a heart attack or mastectomy in the more distant future. Accepting the truth early instead of late permits pro-activity and prevention, which are far better than the alterative of reaction and the long process of healing and restoration. The same tendency toward self-deception manifests itself at work. An employee might simply disregard the nagging hints that the boss is clearly unhappy with his job performance, dismissing them as paranoia. The expressions of dissatisfaction, the somber demeanor, the simmering anger of the employer are written off as signs of the pressure that, it is imagined, the boss is feeling from above. The moment of truth will and must come. It will either come soon in the form of a candid conversation about the boss’ frustration and expectations, or it will come later in the form or a pink slip. Sometimes, entire corporations or even industries succumb to the negligence engendered by self-deception. In the early part of the 1990’s the mighty IBM Corporation collectively ignored massive changes in the computer market and almost collapsed as a result. Feeling invulnerable as a result of decades of market domination and brand superiority, they stopped doing the things that made them unique. They ceased innovation and rested on their laurels, while upstart competitors like Apple and Dell worked feverishly to make their computers more user-friendly, cheaper, customizable, and versatile. Fortunately, they accepted the reality of a changing market in time to save the company and reverse their downward trend. Had they continued to cling to their illusion of invincibility, and interpreted the massive market trend as a temporary fad, they almost certainly would have ceased to exist as a major player in the computer market. By refusing to accept a developing reality, we doom ourselves to leave undone activities that are extremely important.

Waste A second consequence of our illusions is wasted effort. I once knew a woman who decided to go into business for herself as an interior decorator. She invested heavily in wallpaper and fabric samples. She dutifully gathered catalogs, ordered business cards, set up an elaborate filing system, installed an additional phone line in her home, purchased office equipment and… waited for the phone to ring. It didn’t. She had set up the entire business under an illusion that because she had so beautifully decorated her own home, that all of her friends would be willing to pay her to do the same for theirs. She invested her time and effort in those activities which produced no business, but devoted almost no effort at all to marketing, the lifeblood of any business. The business failed in a few short months, thanks largely to this illusion. Consider the husband who toils late nights and weekends for years to provide material goods for his family, only to lose that very family because what they really needed was more time with him. Reflect on the secretary who labors under the illusion that her boss is primarily interested in methodical, careful accuracy, when his main concern is speed and efficiency; the more frustrated he becomes with her work, the more painstaking and systematic she endeavors to be. Imagine the frustration of a salesperson who struggles for years because he has no idea why customers choose his competitor’s product over his own, or vice-versa. Year after year he polishes his sales presentation, placing ever more emphasis on all of the wrong subjects, answering more and more meticulously all of the wrong questions. In each case, carefully evaluating assumptions before acting on them can result in much greater efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity. Cherishing illusions, on the other hand, guarantees a huge amount of wasted time, money, and effort.

Carelessness The third result of our illusions is carelessness. Illusions (false beliefs) are dangerous precisely because they lead directly – like night into day – to unwise or even foolhardy decisions. Choices based on false assumptions wreak havoc for those who fail to evaluate their beliefs, because they result in rash and thoughtless behavior. While in Anchorage, Alaska in 1997 I decided to take the two-hour drive out to the famous Matanuska Glacier, a massive river of ice that is one of the few easily accessible by car. I arrived shortly before closing time with light snow flurries dusting my windshield. It was mid-April, so the weather, though sunny, was still hovering around the freezing mark and the days were short. As it was already late in the day, I was the only visitor there at the time and I had to talk the manager into letting me drive down the muddy road to take a quick look at the glacier, promising not to stay too long. A brief hike across a frozen pond was the most direct route from the car to the glacier, so I struck out confidently and quickly across the ice. Then I heard it… a crack! Looking down, I could see small fizures forming in the ice beneath me feet, shooting out like tiny lightning bolts in all directions. To my shock, the ice was so thin that I could easily see the lake beneath it. Instantly my mind raced back two decades to an important lesson learned in Boy Scouts: if you find yourself on thin ice, spread out your weight! I immediately crouched down on all fours, which to my horror did nothing to stop the cracking, but served only to give me a much closer look at the sloshing water which I estimated to be less than an inch beneath me! I slid to a prostrate position on the ice, slowly turned around and began to inch my way back toward shore. At that moment, with my ear almost pressed to the ice, I heard a thunderous roar. It came from my left and grew louder and louder. Fearing any sudden movement, at a snail’s pace I turned my head toward it. It was the manager driving past me on a bulldozer! My palpable sense of embarrassment and relief melded into laughter as I realized what had happened. The warming temperatures had melted the top inch or two of the ice that day, leaving several feet below solidly frozen. As the sun began to set, the two inches of water atop the ice had begun to freeze from the top down, giving the illusion that I was just centimeters from certain hypothermia or death. In reality, I was two inches away from at least four feet of rock-hard ice. My illusion, in this case proved to be harmless. But what if the ice had, in fact, been thin? Believing that thin ice will support your weight might lead you to confidently, without even thinking about it, walk out onto a frozen pond as I did, but with disastrous results. Note that the problem is not with thin ice, but with the false belief about the ice. Thin ice poses no problem to a person who knows it will not support his weight; he simply avoids it. However, it presents a life-threatening hazard to anyone who believes otherwise. An accurate belief system would lead an informed person to make the wise decision of simply walking around the pond instead of across it. The frozen pond is merely an illustration of similarly false beliefs about work, relationships, money, parenting, success, and happiness. In recognizing and embracing the truth there is safety and prosperity, and the undesirable consequences of clinging to our illusions about life should (and must) serve as the motivation for change. This vitally important transformation begins with a rejection of your illusions, leads to an accurate understanding of life, and ultimately concludes with wiser decisions.

Harmful Choices The fourth consequence of living with illusions is disastrous judgment. Naturally, accurate beliefs tend to result in helpful behaviors and false beliefs in harmful ones. For example, if I truly believe that stepping off of a tall building will result in great pain or death, I will always avoid the edges of tall buildings. My accurate belief about gravity thus results in the wise behavior of standing far away from the edge, or at least being careful not to lean out too far if I do decide to look down. However, if I genuinely believed a lie – that life was meaningless, empty, and hopeless – I might actually choose to step off of the tallest building I could find. This is not merely a misstep or a failure to be proactive. Rather, it is a conscious choice which grows directly from a grand illusion. My false belief about the nature of life would result in the disastrous decision to kill myself. Because decisions are so heavily influenced by beliefs, it is extremely important to reject all false beliefs (“grand illusions”), embrace accurate ones (“grand realities”), and learn to tell the difference between the two. The act of replacing falsehoods with the truth and illusions with reality is called disillusionment. We put an end to self-deception when we insist on ruthlessly telling ourselves the truth. The two diagrams below demonstrate how the consequences of self-deception awaken people to reality and lead to wiser decisions in the future. The first traces the faulty beliefs about the Columbine school shootings, and the second applies the same principle to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Grand Illusion: “These boys won’t actually carry out their threats. It’s all talk.”
Improper Response: No actiontaken. Evidence ignored.
Painful Result: School left unprotected. Fifteen Dead.
Disillusionment-Truth Realized: “Some students will carry out their threats.”
Proper Response: Steps taken to protect school from future violence.

Grand Illusion:
“America is safe because we are protected by two oceans.”
Improper Response
Airplane cockpit doors left unsecured.
Painful Result:
Disillusionment: Truth Realized
“Terrorists will try to kill as many of us as possible on our own soil. The oceans don’t protect us any longer.”
Proper Response:
War taken to terrorists, cockpit doors reinforced, improved airport screening.

It is vitally important for the reader to recognize that the Columbine massacre and the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred not so much because we were deceived by others, but because we were willing to deceive ourselves. Those who should have been paying attention blissfully ignored all of the warning signs that an attack was imminent, and the results were catastrophic. Either attack could have been prevented – perhaps even with relative ease – if only the truth had been recognized and faced earlier. While the consequences of most illusions are far more subtle than those at Columbine High School or The World Trade Center, they are nonetheless often devastating to those who cling to them. One of the great keys to a successful and happy life is recognizing the warning signs of impending troubles and embracing the truth sooner rather than later. But doing so is sometimes difficult because none of us sees the world precisely as it is. Our internal filter system makes it difficult to detect future threats for what they truly are. In the late 1990’s central California was suffering from a serious and prolonged drought. Television newscasts regularly reported on the plight of the farmers in that fertile region, showing scenes of withered crops, brown trees, and dead grass throughout the region. At the height of the drought, I flew to Sacramento, rented a car, and began an hour-long drive south into the San Joaquin Valley for a speaking engagement. To my surprise, the trees were green, the grass lush and verdant. I concluded that the reports of drought had been greatly exaggerated. Then I arrived at my destination and removed my sunglasses! Instantly the greenery was transformed into a sea of dustbowl brown. The real world had not changed; it had been dry and withered all along. But my perception of it had been completely wrong because of the green lenses I wore over my eyes. Your mind contains layer after layer of “lenses” which cause you to see and experience a world that is quite different from the one that actually exists. Removing these mental lenses is a very challenging task. Years ago I vacationed in the San Francisco area and browsed through some of the shops at the legendary Fisherman’s Wharf. While there I witnessed a hilarious demonstration of a virtual reality game. A very large man was standing in a round booth about the size of a kitchen table, with sensors attached to various parts of his body. He carried a toy gun in each hand, and wore a virtual reality visor that covered most of his face. The gathered crowd laughed out loud as this man flailed madly about shooting at enemies no one else could see. Imagine for a moment that an angry, hate-filled stalker had followed this man for days, and now lurked in the watching crowd. Observing his quarry completely absorbed in an imaginary world, the stalker could not help but sense a golden opportunity to strike. In this scenario, the man wearing the visor might be bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter than his attacker, but all of those advantages would be more than offset by the fact that the stalker sees the real world, while his victim sees something entirely different. The underdog would easily be able to defeat his larger, stronger enemy because, in a battle, the advantage always goes to those living in the real world over those living out a fantasy. As long as the game-player wears the visor, his situation is hopeless. As long as his senses perceive a world that is different from reality, he cannot see his enemy to strike back or even to defend himself. His weapons are useless, being designed for virtual enemies, not real ones. However, the moment he removes the visor, the playing field is leveled. All of his senses are useful again, and his advantage is restored. The man with the visor is a living parable of the human predicament; he was frantically shooting at imaginary enemies while leaving himself utterly vulnerable to real ones. All of us travel through life wearing an internal virtual reality visor which impairs our perspective, distorts reality, and superimposes an imaginary world over the real one. As a result, the world we perceive is often quite different from the one which actually exists, and for this reason our minds become filled with damaging grand illusions. By telling ourselves lies rather than facing the unvarnished truth, we set ourselves up for eventual failure. Year by year, as important decisions are made based on these faulty assumptions, life gradually unravels and falls apart. The consequences of self-deception are thus realized. OPTION ONE: The path of self-deception…

OPTION TWO: The path of telling yourself the truth…


Each of us has two alternatives from which to choose. We can cling to our illusions, and thereby choose their devastating consequences when they turn to dust and pour through our fingers, as they inevitably will. Or we can take the road less traveled, choose to strip ourselves of those illusions, and reap the magnificent advantages of living life in the real world, seeing reality just as it is instead of viewing it through a set of distorting lenses I have come to call “Grand Illusions.” Disillusionment, as it is used in this book, refers to the brave act of removing the virtual reality visor and forcing oneself to consistently choose reality over illusions, even when doing so is uncomfortable. Freedom, balance, and a decided advantage in the game of life are restored with the removal of ones illusions. Reality is superior to illusion because the truth is ultimately unavoidable. It cannot be denied forever. It will inevitably come sooner or later, as it did to those at Columbine High School. Reality must either be recognized and embraced voluntarily, in time to adjust to it and prepare for (or hopefully even prevent) its consequences, or it will come crashing in upon us abruptly, involuntarily, unexpectedly, having already done sometimes-irreparable damage. One of the keys to a happy and successful life is choosing to identify and eliminate life’s illusions before their consequences have the opportunity to materialize as a painful and inescapable new reality. The Columbine illusion, undetected, morphed into the reality of a massacre. The 9/11 illusion, unnoticed, became the shocking reality of tons of twisted steel, chunks of concrete and thousands of lost lives. Your illusions, if left unchallenged, will similarly manifest themselves. Most people follow the six steps diagramed earlier: 1. Believing an illusion (self-deception) Example: “This ice will hold me just fine.” 2. Making unwise decisions based on the illusion Example: “I think I’ll save time by just walking across the pond instead of around.” 3. Reaping painful consequences of those bad decisions Example: “This water is really cold. Not only will I be late for work, but I’ll probably have pneumonia for a month.” 4. Learning the truth (becoming disillusioned) Example: “Thin ice won’t support me. Walking across the pond doesn’t save time, it takes more time.” 5. Making wiser choices based on the newly learned truth Example: “Next time, I think I’ll walk around the pond.” 6. Reaping the benefits of those wise choices Example: “I arrived safely on the other side, dry and healthy, and I’m on time for work.” Incredibly, some people never reach step 4, choosing to cling to their illusions and being therefore doomed to repeat mistakes over and over again. They are living, breathing examples of the popular definition of insanity: “Doing the same things over and over again, all the while hoping for different results.” Like flies on a kitchen window, they repeatedly fly at high speed directly into a pane of glass. Again and again they race headlong into the window at varying spots, speeds, and angles. Harder and harder they try, never getting the message that the problem is not with their velocity or angle of attack, but with their fundamental belief about windows. Decade after decade such people replicate the errors that have plagued them all of their lives, simply because they refuse to evaluate their belief system and relinquish their illusions. STORY???? Every relationship entered by such a person ends the same way, because they never change their beliefs about friendship or love. Each job they take follows a nearly identical path of disintegration because they cling to their illusions about bosses, co-workers, and responsibility. Time after time they fail at weight loss, or drug rehab, or money management. Though jobs, marriage partners, and circumstances change constantly, the common thread that runs through all of their failures is a faulty belief system that refuses to adapt to reality. Repeated impacts on the hard rock of truth gradually take their toll and leave the person exhausted, demoralized, or worse. Most people, however, learn their lesson and progress to steps 4 through 6. Some learn quickly, and reject their illusions. Others repeat steps 1, 2, and 3 cyclically a few times before coming to the conclusion that a good dose of disillusionment is in order. But at some point, they cease flying into the glass and exit through the nearby open door. They then proceed to new beliefs and better results. It is very normal and helpful to move from step 3 to 4 as soon as the cycle of failure is recognized. But there is an even better approach available. A truly wise person exercises the option to simply skip the first three steps and move immediately to step 4! Success in this endeavor will save you years of pain, loss, and/or missed opportunities. It will also give you a huge head start in life. Years ago I had a conversation with a close friend who had just discovered that her husband of three years had been cheating on her nearly all that time. She had separated from him and was preparing for divorce proceedings. “I’m so disillusioned right now,” she lamented. “That’s good,” I replied, fully expecting the puzzled look with which she responded. “What do you mean?” she asked. I explained how her current disillusionment, though painful, was still clearly preferable to the only alternative: living another three, ten, or even thirty years under the illusion that she was investing her one-and-only life with the right man. I then asked what I believe to be a key question: “Don’t you wish you had become disillusioned with this man six months before the wedding?” “Absolutely,” she replied. The implication of her answer is clear: disillusionment is better than living under an illusion, and the sooner it comes to any of us, the better off we are. It is far better to start off by accepting the truth than to “learn it the hard way” after lying to oneself for many years.

Written by billyriggs