2012-10-19

Three Self-Delusions And What You Can Do About Them

This week, I have been talking a lot about self-delusion. (See posts here, here, and here.) Today, I'd like to be a little more helpful. It's one thing to point out and criticize the world's delusions, it's another thing to try to arm the reader with a little perspective to help them overcome an unhelpful fantasy.

After all, it can seem a little pessimistic to discover that one has bought wholesale into a delusional fantasy that one can only maintain if one conspires with oneself to pretend to believe it. I mean, that's not a very pretty thought.

But on the other hand, this kind of mental attitude is part-and-parcel of being a human being, and having a human experience. We all do this to one extent or another, and such behavior probably serves some evolutionary purpose of some kind. I leave such questions to the cognitive-scientists, socio-biologists, social evolutionists, and other hyphenated pseudo-sciences that attempt to squash our notions of free will. ;)

Moreover, it need not be unpleasant to discover a few of our delusions and set them straight. Don't ever be afraid of being wrong about anything. We are all wrong more often then we are right; wisdom comes from having made sufficiently many mistakes in a single area of life that further additional mistakes become statistically unrealistic. (Ha, ha, ha...)

So, let's take a look at three self-delusions culled from the headlines and what we can do about them.

Delusion #1: Heroes Are Faultless
Here, I am referring to Lance Armstrong, of course. In the wake of the USADA's published investigation details, corporate sponsors have been bailing on Armstrong, and now even on the sport of professional cycling itself. The world has reacted to the doping scandal in indignation. Everyone feels cheated of something.

Unless a person admired Armstrong specifically for being clean, though, the fundamentals of Armstrong's situation remain unchanged. He still beat cancer. He still managed to create one of the most successful cancer-fighting non-profit organizations in the world. He still managed to out-train his opponents and win seven consecutive Tour de France championships without an unfair advantage.

I think a person who feels upset by the doping "scandal" is really putting himself/herself through the wringer unnecessarily. We need not torture ourselves over the fact that our heroes are imperfect. Perfection is not the reason we are inspired by heroes, heroism is. If disproportionate athletic ability, unparalleled humanitarianism, and triumph over cancer aren't all examples of heroism, then what is?

So don't suffer any further delusions over Lance Armstrong, but also don't feel bad about the ones you had. Accept reality: Armstrong is imperfect, and he is a hero. Knowing this, there is more than enough in the Armstrong story to feel inspired for a long time.

The same hold true, of course, for any other hero you might have.

Delusion #2: Presidential Candidates Are Super-Geniuses Who Will Save The Country
The world held a lot of hope for change when the people of the United States elected Barack Obama in the wake of the awful Bush Administration. We all wanted peace. We all wanted the world to return to the way it was before 9/11. We all wanted to go back into airports without being groped, we wanted to be able to travel freely throughout the world again. We wanted to stop being spied-on and manipulated by our federal law enforcers. We wanted to stop having to explain ourselves at every dinner party held abroad. We wanted our political discourse to regain civility and to become less polarized.

We were kidding ourselves. No matter how amazing Barack Obama might have seemed, no human being on Earth is capable of reversing the course of history. Not even the most powerful mind can wave a magic wand - or sign a magic piece of legislation - that can heal a nation's wounds and restore wisdom and sanity to government that is by all accounts corrupt, bureaucratic, and expansionary.

The truth is, you cannot merely "elect the right guy" and expect the world to change. Change comes from human society, not from its institutions. You cannot outlaw ignorance or nastiness.

You can, however, improve yourself and aim to persuade others of the goodness within ourselves. You can lead by example and teach your children how to be good, kind, generous, and free-thinking human beings.

This is, in fact, the only way the world's political situation will ever improve. We won't achieve lasting peace by electing people who help us delude ourselves into believing that far-away governments solve problems easily without our input. We can certainly achieve it, however, by becoming relentless critics of the divisive doctrines that pit us against each other and by refusing to tolerate such views in others. Enforcing social condemnation on all those who oppose freedom and who instead want to control other human beings, combined with leading lives of private, personal virtue is how we do our part to affect society positively.

In short, leading a life of virtue is the only thing you can do to improve the world. All else is wishful thinking.

Delusion #3: Our Past Mistakes Will Not Turn Out To Be Mistakes If We Wish It To Be So
This delusion refers to several different recent issues. One particularly important issue is the daily murder of innocent civilians via radio-controlled robots. Another important issue is our nation's having the world's highest incarceration rate, and the moral questions it presents to us. Another such issue is the Britney Spears legal battle with her former manager, who claims she was addicted to methamphetamines. There are additional issues, but let's stop the list there.

What do these stories have in common? Each is an example of people engaging in unquestionably destructive and immoral behavior, and then continuing to live as though it won't have an impact in the long run. If we believe that we can kill and terrorize innocent Pakistanis with R/C robots without it coming back to haunt us in the future, we are fooling ourselves. If we believe we can incarcerate a large and growing number of US citizens - even putting many of them to death at the hands of the state - without the arrival of our own "judgment day," we are very foolish. If we believe we can consume large amounts of drugs without people attempting to take advantage of us and ultimately smear us in the tabloids and the courts, we are delusional.

This is a scary one because it involves confronting the ugliest truths about ourselves. But, despite being scary, it is an easy problem to solve. All we have to do is privately internalize the notion of what's going on. We need only admit to ourselves the ugly truth we're ignoring, and take responsibility for our own complicity. (Okay, you might not be complicit in Britney Spears' drug use, but you might certainly be complicit in your own, or someone else's.)

What you'll find is that it is not a particularly unpleasant thing to do, taking responsibility for your moral shortcomings. It seems hard before you do it, but it is pleasantly cathartic and sets your life on track in an important and positive way. We cannot be a nation of drug-abusers, drone-killers, and police-statists. This is not what our nation was destined to be. More importantly, this is not the person you know yourself to be.

We are good people. Sometimes we just have to call upon ourselves to be who we know we really are.