People build their lives out of a mixture of reality and symbols. I’ll provide an example from my earlier Chicago days. I once rented the upper floor of a house; the owner lived on the lower floor. He was out of town one winter and asked me to keep an eye on the central heating unit’s pilot light to make sure it was always on. That much at least, the reality principle guided his life. One day I was back down in the basement and noticed the smell of gas coming from a gas line along the ceiling. The most prompt and reliable public service in any city, even faster than an ambulance or the police, is the gas company when you call their emergency number. They were there in a few minutes. They shut off the gas and unscrewed the leaky pipe. “He put his pipe in bare? What the hell is he doing attaching pipes without pipe dope!” they yelled, as they applied glue to the threads and screwed it back in.
I got on the phone to inform my landlord he had to have all his gas lines refitted with pipe dope as soon as possible.
“It’s a glue, a sealant, to prevent gas from escaping through the joints.”
In other words, his house was possibly days or hours away from being blown sky high. That didn’t stop him too from yelling at me. He was outraged I had approved the gas company’s bill for the service without consulting him first. He was moreover incredulous he could possibly have improperly fitted his own gas lines. Again I tried to explain it was the gas company, not me, that fixed the leaky pipe, and as it was an immediate public threat they didn’t need his permission. No matter. How dare I authorize an unjustified intrusion on his property? It was as if his very identity had been violated. I had messed with his independence, his self-sufficiency, his rights — his symbols. He did finally swallow the humiliation and accepted the need to refit the pipes, but it goes to show how strong resistance to reality can be among symbol-driven types.