“The Lucy Syndrome” refers to I Love Lucy, the longest-running series in TV history. This show portrays the well-tuned comedic ensemble of Lucy and Desí Arnez, Fred and Ethel Mertz, adrift in a sea of typical domestic difficulties. Fred and Ethel are perfect straight men: an older couple, seemingly resigned to the unyielding unsatisfactoriness of American suburban life. Desí is a cubano immigrant musician, an unlikely Hollywood success, a stranger lost in a strange land.
Lucy, the lead, is the enigma. She sails through the vicissitudes that trouble her costars unfazed, without a ripple in her relentless cheerfulness. In Hollywood shop talk, this plot type is known as the “goofball”, a device used with similar effectiveness by comedy veterans George Burns and Gracie Allen. She gets everything wrong, is clearly living in a world of her own, and yet is the only one of the cast who is completely happy.
While entertaining, this plot device sends a serious message: in today’s world, to be happy you must be delusional. The twentieth-century existentialist philosopher Heidegger concluded that while a measure of personal satisfaction can be derived from maintaining individual integrity, it is won at the price of alienation from the surrounding society. Sartre took it further and declared that there is no exit from suffering. Most people accept these conclusions as foregone. But is it really so?
It is trivial to find many examples of people accepting delusion in the pursuit of happiness. The tragic mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult springs to mind. It is possible to find people who believe they can live on air alone; that the prophecies of The Urantia Book must certainly come to pass; that they have transformed their DNA from two strands into twelve.
Obvious nut-cases aside, we all use pet irrationalities to get us through the day. Some delusions are more socially acceptable than others. The baseball professional who never goes to bat without his lucky coin is tolerated. Fanatics who demonstrate against others’ moral views or sexual practices find less acceptance. The typical religious person falls somewhere in between.
Of course, cynics claim that any belief in something beyond this world or life is simply self-delusion. The provenance of the origin stories and scriptures of all religions are more or less dubious. Certainly, in most cases they have been subject to major editing and redaction. Yet even knowing this, many people find comfort and solace in the stories and promises of religion.
Why? The common theme of all religions is relief from suffering. And the method given in most of them is belief. Religion says, “Simply believe in this story, in this set of values, in this ritual, and you will be saved” from the suffering of life. But is there any hard evidence to support these promises? In most cases, no. There the cynics reign unchallenged.
The teaching of the Buddha, however, does not rest on faith but on phenomenology, the very same method of self-observation and analysis used by the existentialist philosophers. The Buddha admits there is suffering in life and asks, “Who or what is suffering?” And the answer will surprise no one: it is ‘I’.
To exist is to suffer. But the Buddha turns this problem on its head: instead of proposing to get rid of the external conditions causing suffering, he proposes to get rid of the sufferer instead. Instead of changing the world, the object—an impossible task—he turns his attention to changing the subject. He found by self-experimentation that when the ‘I’ is eliminated, suffering also ends. This is a capsule description of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: suffering, its origin, its cessation and the path to that cessation.
The interesting thing about the Buddha’s approach is that it does not require faith. Rather, it relies on facts that anyone can confirm by observing his or her own life. Thus, the Buddha’s teaching focuses on getting rid of the biggest delusion of all: the irrational belief in the existence of ‘I’.
But wouldn’t life without an ego be like life after a prefrontal lobotomy? Isn’t egolessness more or less like aphasia or amnesia? Wouldn’t an egoless person be in danger in this world full of aggressive people? No, no and no. The Buddha showed by his personal example that by getting rid of ego a person becomes more intelligent, energetic, compassionate, resilient and perceptive.
After all, by getting rid of the ego there is no one to suffer, and also no one to feel ill, to fail or to die. The Buddha’s teaching eliminates all forms of suffering at once, simply by eliminating the sufferer. And his theory has been proven in countless cases by people from all backgrounds who enhanced their experience of life by taking up his teaching.
So the Buddha’s teaching is not simply another instance of the Lucy syndrome. Actually it is the cure for all forms of delusion, because it cures the root of all delusions: the delusion of ‘I am.’