Illusions Power Our Actions

By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

There’s more to say about the value and impact of illusions.

Again – I don’t suggest that you should share mine, or I yours, but there are some that are  (a) practical to act upon and (b) more useful if shared.  So I’m biased and argue on behalf of some illusions because I think it’s as much of an illusion that they DON’T matter as that they do.  But it’s a subtle thing.

Take Manners, for Instance

Politeness is the value and the attitude, while manners are the observable behaviours of politeness.

When our daughter was small, we lived among others who were no longer bonafide counter-culturists because so many of us now owned houses and were driven by the reality of responsibility.

But a residue of anti-authoritarianism remained, and a difference emerged between those attached to the manners of their upbringing and those who thought that manners were disposable.  Codified correctness is inauthentic, an aping of the WASP establishment, snobbish, and – by excluding the customs of different cultures – “Canadian” manners excluded newcomers.

So where does illusion come in?  Maintaining an illusion can support both the non-mannerly and the very polite.  Neither is absolutely wrong, both can be defended.  Both require a working belief – which depends on maintaining an illusion.

Table Manners from Both Sides

If my illusion is that my actions take place within my own (individualistic) bubble, then if at dinner I slurp, eat with my fingers, and keep reaching across you to get the salt, with no “excuse me”, your enjoyment of the meal is compromised.  But if this is how I’ve always behaved, never noticing if it interferes with the people beside me, I won’t notice your discomfort.  My chosen illusion is that my behaviour matters only to myself,  my impact on other people being irrelevant.  This illusion keeps me from feeling boorish (ultra-rude!).

On the other hand, if I attach a lot of meaning to good table manners – thinking that the absence of them betrays some kind of ignorance – then my illusion is that I know the true way.  I may also feel righteous labeling someone based on how they’re holding their fork.  I’ve placed moral value on their behaviour, failing to see they’ve just been taught a different way of tackling a plateful.

So here’s where balance is once again a beautiful thing.  If I love ‘good’ table manners, can I live in a way that I maintain, within our family, what is comfortable behaviour for us at the table, and at the same time not lay moral value on what we’re teaching?  When my young one comments on the other child eating the chop with his fingers, can I encourage suspending judgment but still insist that in our family, we use the fork?

The most charming people I know are very polite.  They seem welcoming, they are hospitable, they assist with my heavy coat and introduce me to the other people there.  They are kind.

But I gather that people in the old slave-owning South were very polite – to their own.  Most likely not to the people they owned.

For a Society, Big Illusions Requiring Examination

The above may seem trivial, about superficial behaviour.  But it touches on how we see our own place in the world and how illusion may support or undermine ourselves and others.


A fully individualistic outlook requires the illusion that our behaviour matters only to ourselves as long as we’re not hurting someone else.   Actually, Ayn Rand (most widely read proponent of extreme individualism) doesn’t seem to worry about the ‘not hurting someone else’ part.  Her claim: humans ideally look out for themselves, embracing survival of the fittest in all matters.

Another illusion underlying strident individualism is that we accomplish the good we do by ourselves, through our own efforts.  Understandably, the farmer who cleared all the rocks and trees and plowed the field and grew the crops, almost with his bare hands, may hardly be able to perceive the vast network of social organization of which he is a part.  The roads, the forged implements, the communications system that allows marketing, not to mention his barn which was probably raised with neighbours’ help – these allowed his lonely labour to bear fruit.


Actually, western Canadian farmers were very aware of the need to organize mutual benefit.  They developed the CO-OP, a cooperative system of distribution of goods and services, in the early part of the 20th century.  It persists to today.  How wise and far-seeing!  They didn’t nurture the illusion that their success was gained by themselves.  The bumper sticker, “It takes a village to raise a child” is a reminder of the view that belies pure individualism.

The illusion underlying a communal orientation holds that our connectedness keeps us alive and safe: that we will, on the whole, look out for each other.   And maintained in balance (with eyes open to the pain and injustice that persist in the world) this illusion may be one that points toward a more humane society.

It is so necessary to add the obvious – that individualistic people are often wonderful innovators and initiators, and as leaders, have forged paths that others can progress upon.

Now where this all puts the Clan, or the Family, I’m not sure.  Neither individualistic nor connected to others who aren’t part of the Clan?  To ponder another day!

The Right Degree of Illusion Inspires Action!

The illusions we allow ourselves to hold on to are, socially, really important choices that direct our actions.  The illusions that support a connection to the Divine, discussed in last week’s blog, are questioned throughout a lifetime.  By contrast, the illusions underpinning our stance in the world can be almost invisible.  We take them for granted.  I am hardly aware of when and how I chose to maintain my particular illusions – probably during my 20’s, moderated and balanced in the decades since.

At some time, we all act upon those illusions we permit ourselves.

How our important illusions move us to engage with issues in the world will be seen as we come up against choices.  I do love those pot-bangers in Quebec.  Their illusions are wonderful and necessary – in my view.  They identify with the majority who are under-represented and shortchanged.  Bang Bang Bang!



Filed under A Bigger Circle, Rosemary's entries, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Illusions Power Our Actions

  1. Bang Bang Bang. I concur most heartily. My ‘manners’ were in place if not always in action by five. It started at the table. Strong memories of ‘don’t sing at the table’ don’t slurp, don’t put your elbows on the table, don’t fight, etc.
    Worst of all I do judge others by their manners. Their Canadian/Wasp?? manners.
    I am working on it.

  2. Pat Smiley

    My very WASPy mother had a code of “table manners” that applied to everybody else, and not her. So, I didn’t grow up with a strong respect for this. I was determined that my own family dinner time would be marked by enjoyment of the food and the company. I have succeeded – and have been at times astonished by my (now) adult son’s request for a table napkin.
    I think good manners are about having respect for the person(s) you are with. It’s not about a set of rules.
    In this, I’m reminded of a Christmas party I was invited to just this past holiday season. There was a group of women at the next table I knew, who were quite careful of preserving what to them, seemed the proper behaviour for such an occasion.
    Frankly, they were so stiff, unjoyful, that I avoided them throughout the party. They are under the illusion that they are ladylike, and to be honest, in the past, I’ve found them rude snobs (and I could outclass them any day if I wanted to engage in that nonsense.)
    Expand those comments on “connectedness”, Rosemary. How much do we think about other people in all the situations we find ourselves in? Do we have manners that apply to climbing on a bus, or pushing our carts around the supermarket? Would we give up our space in a long lineup at the cash register to that parent who is trying to get out of there with a couple of tired kids?

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