At the heart of the book Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, is a philosophical problem. Coincidentally, it’s the same philosophical problem I encountered earlier this year, when deciding whether to travel to London and Paris.
In 1984, as Krakauer explains, brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty worked together to murder another brother’s wife and daughter. They took this action because Ron had received a revelation. He had been taking a class on how to receive revelations from God. He typed out the revelations he received. One of them focused on the importance of murdering several people, among them the two that were soon murdered by him and his brother.
The philosophical problem is this. When you get very silent and pay attention to your mind, or when you pray and listen for a response, or when you wake from an interesting dream, you may receive a revelation. The secular definition of revelation on dictionary.com is “something revealed or disclosed, especially a striking disclosure, as of something not before realized.” Call it the unconscious mind, or call it a god or spirit, or call it the dream world—it’s all the same thing. Perhaps the revelation appears in your mind due to the workings of a higher power, or perhaps it’s a biological process, or perhaps it’s both. In any case, you receive a new perspective on the world and your duties in it, one heretofore unfamiliar to your conscious mind. If you receive a revelation, take it seriously, and act upon it, does that mean you are crazy?
I wrote about some of my experiences with dreams in this post about profound dreams that taught me something new about myself. I argued that dreams are worth listening to because, to quote myself, “the unconscious mind often has access to knowledge that the conscious mind does not.”
I elaborated on this topic in this more recent post on a dream about traveling to London and Paris and my decision to act upon that dream. Somehow, as I explained in this post, my unconscious mind synthesized a great deal of information, which meanwhile my conscious mind had not yet synthesized, and presented to me in a dream an unexpectedly original and fascinating idea. Upon waking, I realized that events in my life had aligned. It the perfect year for me to travel solo to Europe. (Under the Banner of Heaven was the book I referred to in that post: the one I finished on the airplane to London.)
The Philosophical Problem
This brings me back to our philosophical problem. Is there any difference between me listening to a particularly powerful dream and acting upon it (thereby vacationing in Europe), and Ron Lafferty listening to a revelation from God and acting upon it (thereby murdering two people)? Here’s how Krakauer presents the problem:
“If Ron Lafferty were declared mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of his God, isn’t everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well?”
I would add to that everyone who meditates and dreams and uses insights gained therefrom to navigate their lives.
The conclusion that Krakauer and other experts came to is no, Ron Lafferty is not mentally ill . . . with the possible exception of him exhibiting a diagnosable case of narcissistic personality disorder. However, as Krakauer explains, a large percentage of the population could be properly diagnosed in this way—many of them highly successful in their careers, and the vast majority of them not murderers.
So where did the Lafferty brothers go wrong?
I’m going to have to go beyond the analysis in Under the Banner of Heaven to answer this question, because Krakauer leaves the final analysis and judgment up to the reader. But here’s what I think.
If you receive a revelation—no matter whether through meditation, prayer, or dreaming, and no matter whether you attribute it to a higher power or to your unconscious mind—remember that it is just an idea. A revelation is a creative synthesis of a lot of different facts that you are aware of, but have not yet synthesized consciously. It is a new way of looking upon your world and your future.
Your job at that point, as a conscious, thinking individual, is to make a judgement call about that idea. It’s a new idea! It opens up possibilities that you had not seen before! But not every possibility can or should be realized. Some possibilities are not practical, and some possibilities are downright horrific.
And the truth is, revelations can always be interpreted in multiple ways. Your job is not to try to guess, like a slave, what some hidden master wants to passive-aggressively communicate to you, so that you won’t be beaten hereafter. No. Your job is to assess the revelation like you would assess any other idea that you happen to come up with, or that someone else happens to share with you. You can choose to take the idea and live it out in full, or you can choose to change the idea and do something similar yet different, or you can choose to ignore the idea entirely. But the important thing is that you are in control, thinking about the consequences of your actions, and hopefully always striving to make the world a better place.
I am thinking now of the saying “God helps those who help themselves.” There is no instruction manual for life. Not even the most scientific or holy books can tell you what to wear tomorrow evening and whom to meet for dinner. No revelation can tell you that, either.
But books and revelations can give you ideas. And you, with all the power of your conscious mind, can assess those ideas and make the best decisions you can.
While I was preparing to travel to Europe and actually traveling, I did not try to recreate everything that happened in my dream. That would have been ridiculous and probably impossible, and I would have had a miserable time! Instead, I took ideas from my dream that I liked and discarded the rest. In fact, most ideas I gain from dreams I discard immediately. It’s only occasionally that a really good idea comes to me in a dream.
So it’s not crazy to listen to revelations that you receive. What’s crazy—or at least deeply unwise—is to abdicate your natural-born decision-making abilities.
Have you stumbled across any original ideas lately? What do you think of them?