Lies have power. The power of lies controls how we see ourselves and behave with others. People are the only species that use lies as part of day-to-day behavior. Why do we love lies?
The best lie is to believe that we won’t die. The imposition of death, how it interferes with our ability to focus and feel pleasure, creates turmoil. Death keeps us from feeling at home in the world; death keeps us from feeling safe.
Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist, wrote The Denial of Death 47 years ago. In that classic, astonishing work, he said that the unwillingness to accept death keeps us from meaningful action and self-awareness. Denial of death prevents people from doing restorative work; denial of death leads to inaction because the delusion persists that there is time to do things. Denial of death also requires enormous energy that might be better placed in problem solving and creative work.
The Japanese approach to death, in contrast to traditional Western views, is rooted in Zen Buddhist and Shinto traditions that can be found today in modern practices. These spiritual approaches can be summarized as acceptance or ukeireru. Ukeireru is a way of life—an acceptance of death; it recognizes that all living things are temporal. It is the opposite of denial.
That acceptance frees the mind because it forces the individual to concentrate on what is, and not what was or what will be. It’s a truth that cuts through the lies that can become so habitual that they no longer seem like lies.
In Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance, my book about ukeireru, what is understood as vital are both lies and acceptance. There are good lies and bad lies; there are good forms of acceptance, and there are bad ways of acceptance.
Art is a good lie: A fiction writer is making up a story, they are telling us something that did not happen. It could have happened; but in the telling, the important thing is to imagine that it did happen. It’s a lie that entertains and responds to our human need and desire to be told lies.
Leaders who lie, on the other hand, are manipulating our habit as people to avoid the truth; lying is part of human nature. The lies of leaders keep us from creating the systems and institutions needed to allow us to accept the truth. Leaders who lie use our fear of the truth, and our love of lies, to incarcerate our minds.
Accepting the lies of a leader can come about because we feel helpless or even spellbound by the power of his lies. His lies feed into our tendency as human beings to deny what we fear most.
The acceptance of lies can be overcome.
On the artistic level, a painter friend of mine in Japan, her name is Mika, told me that in order to create she has to accept that nature holds all the cards, and that she is unimportant: “When I feel nothingness, like when I’m in a Zen temple, that’s when I can do my work as an artist.
On the political level, accepting fear and death are key to overcoming the lies that we are being fed.
The power of lies depends on our fear. But when you accept death, you can overturn lies.
The process of becoming fearless and creative requires enormous concentration.
But here’s a secret:
For me, and I suspect for others, 80 percent of writing is establishing and maintaining concentration. Fifteen percent is imagination. Five percent is luck. And that’s not just every day. It’s often every hour.
Breaking through the denial imposed upon us by our natural human inclination to embrace lies is liberating—it releases the energy needed to accept the world in order to change it.
References: Becker, Ernest (1973). The Denial of Death. New York, New York: Free Press.