Humans Live in a Fantasy World
I was reading an article on Medium about a week ago on transgender issues. One of the commenters had a startling take: he said that as a psychotherapist he refused to call one of his female transgender patients by her preferred pronouns, because she was living in a “fantasy of a female body” and he couldn’t validate that.
Other commenters predictably attacked this comment for its harshness and inhumanity. I found myself objecting to the refusal to use pronouns, while at the same time agreeing with the fantasy part of his comment.
Hear me out.
I am against transphobia. I use all-gender public restrooms without discomfort or resentment. I have transgender people in my family and community and I am happy to use whatever pronouns they like. As a high school teacher I taught a number of transgender students over the years, and I hope I never made any of them feel excluded or belittled for their lack of traditional gender conformity.
I do not understand why a therapist would insist on this kind of authoritarianism and disrespect. It costs nothing to validate people’s chosen identity and it benefits society as a whole to be inclusive, welcoming and equitable.
My nephew, formerly my niece, lives his life as a man, with a decidedly male appearance thanks to hormone treatments and surgery. He has a partner who is also transgender. They live their lives the way they want to and seem very happy. My deep love for my nephew was not in any way diminished by his change of gender identity. If I ever get to meet his partner, I feel certain that I would love them too. I see no problem with this and would denounce anyone who would try to deny their essential humanity or try to restrict their rights as citizens.
But the idea of a “fantasy of a female body” struck me as valid, despite its judgmental source. If someone is born male and decides he identifies as female, begins dressing in feminine clothing, taking female hormones and even having surgery to alter his body, he is essentially living a fantasy. Even having gender reassignment surgery does not make one actually a member of the opposite sex. If one is born male, one still has a Y chromosome in every cell of one’s body.
Transgender activists would denounce this idea as discriminatory and as denying the humanity of this transgender woman. I do not see it this way.
Chromosomal sex, unlike gender, actually does exist in the universe. It is a biological reality. Even feminist philosophers like Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, who first coined the term “chromosomal sex,” acknowledge this.
We are ALL, to one extent or another, living in a fantasy world of our own creation.
The unacknowledged problem is that we are all living in a fantasy reality; it is the essence of being human.
We live in fantasies of whiteness, of white supremacy, of straightness, of queerness, of Blackness, of Indigenousness, of spirituality, of class, of maleness, of femaleness, of heroism, of political correctness, of conservatism, of liberalism. These things are both “real” and not real. They all have some validity, but they cannot ever encompass the whole of reality.
Marriage is a fantasy. It has legal ramifications in the social world, but it is not a biological reality. Everyone knows this, but it doesn’t stop marriage-minded people from getting married.
The permanence of religious and spiritual ideas is an illusion.
Here’s another example: I am Jewish. I chose Judaism at age 50 and went through a conversion process. One thing my husband, who is a rabbi, said to me early in our relationship was that “Judaism doesn’t actually exist.”
This was a revelation to me. The more I thought about it however, the more I realized that it was true. Judaism both does and doesn’t exist.
Much like a transgender woman both is and isn’t a woman. Socially, and to some extent biologically, she is female. Chromosomally, she is not. And she can even reverse her female identity if she chooses.
This is similar to someone embracing or rejecting a Jewish identity. One can be born Jewish or become Jewish. One can renounce part or all of one’s Jewish identity by assimilating into the larger community or adopting a secular Jewish identity. It’s all a matter of choice, even if one grows up steeped in a Jewish tradition.
There are Jewish communities who meet every Saturday in very large and impressive buildings to attend services administered by human beings called rabbis and cantors. The congregation sits on wooden benches that have a real, physical reality. At one point in the service, the Torah scroll is taken out of the ark. It is made of the skins of actual animals and is inscribed with letters, words, and stories that go back thousands of years. The words are chanted with traditional melodies that go back hundreds of years.
The words and the way they are inscribed on the parchment must be exact. A Torah scroll must be perfectly copied out by hand by a scribe known as a sofer. There is a very elaborate process that ensures that new Torah scrolls are exactly the same as old Torah scrolls.
The traditions of Judaism seem solid and real to its adherents. Even to many outsiders. But they are no more real than any other human ideological construct.
Judaism does not exist in the universe. No physicist will ever discover a Judaism particle. There is no cosmic force that would explain Judaism.
Everything crumbles and disappears in time.
One day even the most solid, well designed, well cared-for synagogue will collapse into rubble. Every Torah scroll will wear out and be buried in a a special grave called a genizah. Eventually, every molecule, every subatomic particle, of that Torah scroll will reorganize itself within material reality into something completely different. Only its essential energy will remain in the universe.
The universe does not know that the words on that material construction were supposed to be holy and eternal.
Even the universe itself may not be eternal. We don’t really know.
That does not invalidate Judaism as a system of belief or as a way of life. It just means that its insubstantiality must be acknowledged.
Human reality is insubstantial and our seeming understanding of the universe is an illusion.
A lot of things are insubstantial, including gender concepts. Shakespeare referred to the entire human world as “this insubstantial pageant” in his final play, The Tempest.
Much of human life is theatrical and based on illusion. Every era of human history has its insubstantial pageants that seem real and solid, and then just disappear. One era has the drama of religious heresy, another has a political revolution, another has a racial or gender divide. Everything changes, but human drama is perennial, with renewed conflicts from generation to generation: “All is changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born” according to the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, speaking of a violent rebellion in 1916.
One of the ways that humans can be distinguished from say, bonobos or chimpanzees, is that we can conceptualize about reality to a far higher degree. We can use a sophisticated language to communicate with each other. We can live in our heads if we want to. We can live in a fantasy world more or less full time if we choose. We all live in a fantasy at least part of the time. We share fantasies: fantasies like nationality or religion that cannot, by their very nature be considered “real” on every level.
Physical, chemical, and biological processes can be considered real, but their nature is always subject to revision. We are discovering reality at every moment. We will never completely discover it in our limited human form. Perhaps humans will evolve into a life form that can understand reality. We are definitely not there, if indeed we will ever get there. We must accept our limitations as physical, social, psychological, and perhaps spiritual beings.
Our brains, our senses, our languages, our cultural beliefs, our egos, all limit our perception of reality and create a constructed reality that allows us to organize the millions of information bits that bombard us from second to second.
Humans cannot deal with reality because reality is so much bigger than our minds. We have to select from the sensations and ideas that we encounter and somehow organize them into a coherent whole.
We are not actually living in reality.
There is always editing or selection of reality.
Some people require a severe editing of reality. They might, for example, live in an exclusive community based on very specific rules and beliefs that have changed very little from generation to generation. They might be perceived as “narrow” by people with a different, more expansive view of reality that allows for more flexible rules about how to go about one’s affairs.
That doesn’t mean that the less restrictive people are living in “reality” while the restrictive ones are living in a “fantasy.” It means that people choose different fantasies, some more restrictive or expansive than others.
So, my nephew is, in a sense, living in a fantasy of a male body. But he is no more living a fantasy life than I am. He has chosen a different fantasy from me and identifies with a particular community.
I know very little about his community. He lives in a different city in a different country. I speak to him at the most once a year, usually on a family videoconference.
Community is everything.
He is still my beloved family member. We share a certain reality, that of our family and our past, and of our shared nationality. Otherwise, we entertain different fantasies of what life means and how we pursue pleasure and happiness. I wish I could have more connection to him, but like many modern families, ours is scattered geographically.
More and more, people in the 21st century are living in tiny, scattered realities based on fantasies and ideas of community and wholeness, with radically different notions of the nature of reality, leading to more and ideological conflict in human society. Unfortunately this situation seems to inspire all kinds of violence, from online and verbal bullying to actual violent attacks to, most horribly, mass murder.
All because we feel the need to defend our version of reality. Because different realities held by different people whom we don’t like are some kind of existential threat. It is all or nothing. Either our fantasy is correct, or it is wrong. And other people’s fantasies must be vociferously declared to be unequivocally wrong. Otherwise, we might just cease to exist.
It’s a terrifying thought.
But we will all cease to exist one day, at least in this material reality.
Only the poets seem to get it.
What if we were to accept and acknowledge that we are all incomplete versions of humanity? That we could come together as one and still retain our individual sense of reality?
We would have to admit that we are all incomplete, all limited, all egotistical, all equally silly, brilliant, loving, hating, paranoid, desperate for status.
Maybe we would laugh at ourselves for our outrageous misunderstanding and misconstruction of reality.
Maybe we would even love each other for our flawed humanity.
I will end with some more words from Shakespeare:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
It’s a thought. Our life is a kind of dream. A dream that will end with who knows what. Maybe the fact that we are all going to die should give us pause and consider calling a ceasefire to all the ideological conflict.
Really, what is the point of it in the face of all that is unknown?