What Happens If We Drop Our Illusions?

We’re often focused on our own “screenplay of how great things are,” writes Barry Boyce. But if we can let go of the narratives we think we need, we can see people as they are.

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The early ’60s, when I was very young, was a time of tremendous hope for many. The president of the United States was young and seemingly vigorous; in his inaugural address he uttered a couplet that would be repeated for years: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The new Pope, John XXIII, son of a sharecropper, made humbleness and equality his watchwords and sought to upend a church noted more for self-regard than charity, proclaiming, “We were all made in God’s image, and thus, we are all Godly alike.” Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his rousing “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to a quarter-million people crowded onto the National Mall. For a while, young people, particularly young Irish Catholics like me, were fed a steady diet of hope: Good people were doing good things.

Learning that people have behaved in profoundly disappointing and dispiriting ways is an outward-looking form of disillusionment. Just the same, one can easily become dismayed when the lens turns inward.

Mass disillusionment followed. The president assassinated, the pope dead too early, the Vietnam War taking…