Necessary fictions

Willie’s talking about his job, which he hates.  I ask if he’s thought about doing something else.

He scowls.

“I’m forty-six years old,” he mutters.  “I have a wife, two kids and a 30-year mortgage.  What the hell else am I doing to do?”

“I don’t know.  What would you like to do?”

This pushes a button.  Now he’s angry.

“Shit,” he says.  “I’m so tired of hearing You can be whatever you want to be.  I get sick to my stomach when I hear that.  It’s such bullshit.”

I say nothing.

“You disagree?” he says.

“Yes,” I say.  “I don’t think it’s bullshit.”

“Oh come on,” he says.  “You can’t believe anyone can be anything they want just because they want it.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t.  But I don’t think believing it is bullshit.”

“Why not?”

“It’s what’s called a necessary fiction,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Ever read Monkeytraps?” I ask.


“Good,” I say.  “Read it tomorrow.  I’ll answer there.”


* * *.

A necessary fiction is a story we tell ourselves to help us get through life.

It’s not a lie, exactly.  Nor is it entirely the truth.

It’s more like an aspiration — a way of reaching towards what we need or want.

It makes us feel good about ourselves, or life, or the future.  It makes pain and disappointment more bearable.   Gives us courage.  Gives us hope.  Helps us cope.

We all live by necessary fictions.  We all tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we’re doing and where it will all lead.

For example,

Everything will be okay.

We’ll live happily ever after.

I’ll never die.

The people I love will never die.

I’ll never get old and sick.

Money buys happiness.

Driving is perfectly safe.

If I vote for X, it will make a difference.

Tomorrow’s another day.

I can get control of how I feel.

That last one is my favorite, of course, since the idea of control is the necessary fiction Monkeytraps is all about.

Why do I call these fictions necessary?

Because of our big brains.

Like oversized computers run amuck, our big brains are dominated by the process Buddhists call monkey mind — an incessant stream of remembering and projecting, interpreting and analyzing, worrying and agonizing.

Ever stop to listen?  It’s a nuthouse in there.

Necessary fictions act as a sedative.  They appease monkey mind, quiet it down.

Imagine, for a moment, living without that sedative.

Imagine living day to day, hour to hour if you cannot forget that someday you must die.  I’ll never die fends off death anxiety.

Imagine getting in your car and running to the store for milk if you can’t forget that someone dies in a car accident every 13 minutes.  Driving is perfectly safe is the necessary antidote.     


There’s a difference between relying on necessary fictions and being lived by them.

We must remember that our fictions are fictions.  To do that means being self-aware and self-supporting.

To forget that they’re fictions — that this is a story we believe, not a literal truth — is to lose touch with reality.

Religious bigots are a good example.  They’re convinced themselves the story they believe is The Truth.  It’s a short step from that conviction to seeing everyone who doesn’t share it as deluded, even evil.  (Even deserving extinction.  Read the papers.)

Control addicts are another example.  They’ve convinced themselves — despite all evidence to the contrary — that control is both possible and necessary.  So they spend their lives chasing it, like a hapless commuter ten steps behind a train he can never catch.

Which leads to lives of frustration and misery.  Control addicts make other people pretty miserable too.

In therapy I try to help them see control as a necessary fiction, a story they tell themselves about the way they want things to be.  It’s a very human story.   One that’s sometimes necessary, and sometimes necessary to give up.

Because when you can’t give it up, you’ve made a problem out of a solution.


* * *


Speaking of illusions:

Less necessary,

more fun.

~ From the video The chalk guy (2:15).

(For best effect,

watch it full screen.)

4 responses to “Necessary fictions

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