The Psychology of Escapism (DE Wave)

According to a Gallup Organization survey, 20% of Americans believe that it is possible to communicate with the dead. Films such as ‘Bless the Child’ and ‘Sixth Sense,’ along with TV shows peddling self-proclaimed mediums like John Edward, continue to feed an apparent need for otherworldly communication.

Book after book has been written about the authenticity (or lack thereof) associated with those who claim to predict the future and communicate with the dead. It is not my intention to add to that collection of dubious ‘scientific’ study, but as a cognitive psychotherapist, my question is this: What need does this fascination with mysticism serve? Why do otherwise levelheaded people flock to psychics, mediums and the like? What are we looking for that is so superior to reality? As John Edward artfully cultivates his faux persona of clairvoyance for the TV cameras, there is no doubting the outbursts of genuine emotion from the audience. Right or wrong, true or untrue, there is a need being served here.

Human beings want explanations. Science does not provide us with everything — at least not all at once. Consequently, it can be tempting to look for answers beyond the realm of reason and reality. Of course, what greets you there is nothing more than wishful thinking, but fantasy still holds great emotional appeal in an uncertain world.

Adults who grew up in abusive environments often tell me, ‘I escaped by retreating into fantasy.’ Indeed, fantasy can actually keep a young person sane through the psychological (and sometimes physical) warfare taking place in the household. Of course, not everyone grows up like that, but I think this offers a clue to the appeal of the paranormal: Life can occasionally be puzzling and stressful, and it can be exciting to seek comfort outside the real world. As an old friend of mine once put it, ‘It’s fine to face reality and confront your fears, but what happens when reality bites?’

Here’s where you run into the difference between healthy and unhealthy attitudes. When reality bites, the healthy person with self-esteem thinks, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ The answer might not be immediate, but that person trusts his or her mind to figure things out without resorting to fantasy and make-believe.

A person who finds it difficult to summon up this kind of strength will say, ‘I just can’t take it. I need out.’ In rare cases this could result in suicide or drug/alcohol addiction, but these are the exceptions. Some will immerse themselves in their work. Still others turn to the paranormal.

The mystical can be fascinating. It addresses questions that most of us don’t think about in daily life. What happens after we die? Is there reincarnation? Can I communicate with lost loved ones? Of course, when all is said and done, there is no hard evidence of any of this. But for many the appeal lies in escaping the rigors of daily life by venturing to the other side where, for a blissful little while, you can make up the rules yourself.

Unhappy or over-stressed people will think, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ The thought can be in response to tragedy or nothing more than a frustrating day. A cognitive therapist can offer no answer other than, ‘This is just how it is. Don’t try to read meaning into it. Some things just are what they are.’ The challenge is to figure out how to cope. Explanations are certainly valuable, but solutions are more important.

Trying to dig up explanations for the not-yet-explained, or maybe the merely coincidental, might make for a happy escape, but it accomplishes nothing in the end.

Celebrated singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder said it best in his hit song ‘Superstition’: ‘When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way!’

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