Monday, August 12, 2013

Self Deception: A Blessing and a Curse

Sometimes we live for our illusions. No one ever argues that we shouldn't be happy, but we will argue for being an atheist when we know that the religious are happier than the non believers. We also know that depressive people rarely have an unrealistic view of life and events. Research shows that the depressed are much more likely to have an accurate view of reality than healthy minded people. How could that be unless we're all a little delusional? We tend to call it optimism, which is an essential component of a healthy mindset. At the core of optimism is a self serving delusion that ignores possible negative outcomes in favor of positive ones. And yet how could anyone argue that optimism is a negative thing?

This is not to say that all forms of optimism are delusional. We are the sum of what we focus on. Choosing to focus on what's positive isn't delusional until we choose to ignore information that would be discomforting. I criticized this practice in others and avoided it myself. I found something distasteful about blocking anything out simply because it made me uncomfortable. After my own experiences with depression, I found a deeper respect for an optimistic outlook. Even an optimism that bleeds into delusion can be useful. When this selective viewing of reality occurs, there are often enough social pressures to keep us from going too far. With a realism focusing strategy, there is little or no social push back for seeing things in a more positive light. There are many rewards for such a strategy, but happiness isn't one of them.

A lesser form of self delusion is fiction. Lord knows I love stories. I'm not in any way saying reading or watching stories is somehow harmful, but it is a willing form of delusion for the sake of entertainment. We never speak of characters we love as the creation of their authors. We think of them as real people. We would say what was Shakespeare thinking when he had Hamlet delay killing his uncle? We would simply speak of Hamlet as a real person with agency and self determination. In fact, anything that takes us out of the fictive dream (such as inaccuracies, poor acting, clumsy dialogue, or implausible decisions) is a sure fire way to doom an otherwise entertaining story. If we aren't able to think of the characters as real, even when they're traveling through space and time faster than light, then we won't enjoy stories written about them. Self deception is at the core of many good things in our life. So when does self deception go wrong?

Before I answer that, I want to go into why stories are entertaining to us in the first place. Do you have the experience of telling a story about your life that happened to you a long time ago? It was fun to recall it, right? Now have you had the experience of telling that same story with someone you shared that experience with? Not as much fun. Why? Probably because you argued to death over what really happened. We are our own narrative center of gravity. Our life depends on a story that we tell to ourselves that makes sense and explains who and why we are the way we are. That is why we love stories so much. It gives us the essential skills for self identity. Literature, in all its forms, shapes who we are. We use the power of narrative to tell the story of our own lives. We have to understand that who we are is a manipulation of ourselves. Stories help us explain things that are too confusing or complicated to understand without them. Writers are simply insightful observers of the world who filter it for us to make it more relatable.

When situations happen in our own lives that are similar to situations in fiction we gain insights into our own situation. When he reverse happens we find it entertaining maybe even moving. I think the same can be said of religious texts. We're likely to draw parallels in our lives, and it will help us obtain new insights into life. The only problem with religion is that it goes a step further than literature and claims that its stories are literally true. Even the most sensible people end up believing in some strange shit. If you want to believe that man collected billions of different species of animal on a boat before the entire world flooded, you won't be alone. That community of like minded people is likely to make you happier than not, even if it's based on a story as realistic and James and the Giant Peach or Jack and the Beanstalk. It only gets unhealthy when those beliefs start to impact your life in negative ways. Say when you start buying magical beans.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that all of us live in our own subjective reality. To imagine the way the world in an objective way is an act of delusion in itself. We see things the way we see them, and there's little way to escape the confines of our own minds. However, there is conversation. It's not the same as imagining a world from an objective point of view, but hen we respect another's perspective enough to listen intently we can get a glimpse of what might be true. When someone asks me why I'm not religious this is the simplest reason why. I've never seen a religious person's faith increased by opening his mind. The fundamentalist almost always regards the free thinker as a threat. As well he should. As am open minded guy,  I now view the religious mindset with a respect I may have lack previously. To know the truth isn't the ultimate goal. The whole point is to live a good life. Sometimes, we can live a better life with a little bit of self delusion.

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