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Dr. Mardy's Quotes of the Week
October 15—21, 2023 | THIS WEEK'S THEME: “Lying to Oneself”
Opening Line of the Week
The opening sentence of The Big Laugh (1962) is direct, succinct, and expressed with all the authority of an axiom about the human experience. In fact, that’s exactly how the narrator viewed it, writing in the second paragraph:
“This law protects some good people who are in danger of turning bad; it also makes it impossible for a lot of bad people to become good.”
The opening words of O’Hara’s darkly satirical novel about Hollywood are also a good way to introduce this week’s theme. When people begin to believe the lies they are telling themselves, they’re generally unaware of what they’re doing—even though it’s fairly obvious to almost everybody else.
This Week’s Puzzler
On October 15, 1844, this man was born in a small village in Prussian Saxony (now Germany). The son of a Lutheran minister, he was only five when his father died (he and a younger sister were raised by his mother and her family). A brilliant but erratic student, he attended the Universities of Bonn and Leipzig before serving briefly in the Prussian Army (an accident while riding a horse shortened his military career).
In 1869, at only 24 years old, he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Basel (Switzerland). Beginning with The Birth of Tragedy (1872), he went on to break new ground in religious and philosophical thinking, profoundly influencing later generations of writers and thinkers.
I was a college junior when I first heard about this week’s Mystery Man, and I have to thank the noted psychiatrist Viktor Frankl for making the introduction. At the beginning of his classic Man’s Search for Meaning (1959), Frankl cited two of his quotations as central to his surviving the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. The first one is so famous that mentioning it here would immediately give away his identity (I’ll mention it in the Puzzler Answer below). The second one has become one of my all-time favorite quotations:
“He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
It was the first time I’d seen the two quotations cited by Frankl, and they both struck me with great force. As a psychology major, I was also deeply impressed with how Frankl described the second quotation: “It could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts.”
The philosophical writings of this week’s Mystery Man could be dense, turgid, and subject to many wildly different interpretations. But in his personal reflections and introspective writings, he wrote with a precision and power that led Sigmund Freud to say of him: “He had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was likely to live.”
A perfect example is something he wrote in 1888:
Who is this person? (Answer below)
Have You Ever Lied to Yourself?
This is, of course, a trick question. Of course, you’ve lied to yourself. We all have. The real question is: how often have you done so, and how big or potentially harmful have the lies been?
It is a truism of modern psychology that human beings are highly susceptible to believing things they want to be true—and this includes believing things about themselves that are false, often outlandishly false. In study after study, for example, psychologists have found that over ninety percent of people believe they are above average in (1) having a good sense of humor, (2) possessing common sense, (3) being a good driver, and (4) having the ability to get along with others.
It is with regard to intelligence and mental functioning, though, that these illusions can get particularly stunning. In one survey of high school students a few years ago, a stunning 25 percent believed they were in the top one percent of their class! The phenomenon is not restricted to naïve adolescents, either. I recall another study in which 94 percent of college professors believed that, when compared to their peers, they were above average.
The problem with people who lie to themselves it that it reveals a casual relationship with the truth—and sometimes even a complete disregard for it. A wonderful passage in I John 1:8 (KJV) says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” I believe the same conclusion may be reached about people who lie to themselves: the truth is not in them.
There are few things more difficult to dislodge from our minds than the flattering illusions we've formed about ourselves. And while the forms of self-deception we’ve seen so far are relatively harmless, it’s a far different story when people take it to extreme lengths. When this happens, it rises to the condition known as megalomania, which The American Heritage Dictionary defines this way:
“A psychopathological condition characterized by delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence; a form of insane delusion the subjects of which imagine themselves to be very great, exalted, or powerful personages; the delusion of grandeur.”
Thankfully, the condition is relatively rare, but when it does show up, it can be very troublesome—and often even dangerous. The essence of a megalomaniac was brilliantly captured in a classic Dostoevsky novel, when the patriarch of the Karamazov family asked Father Zosima, a Russian spiritual advisor, about how to inherit eternal life. The religious leader replied:
After continuing with a few more thoughts on the dangers of lying to oneself, Father Zosima concluded by saying:
“A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea—he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility.”
Having explored the problem—albeit briefly—the question becomes: is there a solution, or even an antidote, to the problem of lying to oneself. Happily, there is, and it was offered well over two centuries ago, in one of the most celebrated poems in literary history:
Expressed in modern English, Burns is offering a profoundly important idea here. If God could give us the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us, it would free us from many of the foolish ideas and notions that beset people who are lying to themselves.
It’s a great idea in theory, but in practice, megalomaniacs—especially those in positions of power or authority—go to great lengths to insulate themselves from corrective feedback. They generally begin by surrounding themselves with sycophants and suck-ups, and when that doesn’t completely do the job, they punish those who have the temerity to speak the truth to them. We’ll explore this problem in a future issue, but the entire theme was once brilliantly captured by an unknown comic who said: “Tell your boss the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
Let me bring my remarks to a close by mentioning one final problem with people who believe their own lies. In addition to not seeing themselves as others do, they usually take it one step further by categorically rejecting all that doesn’t comport with their view of themselves. In so doing, they form their own “alternate reality,” characterizing everything they don’t want to hear as mistaken or false. I sincerely hope that you have not fallen into this trap, for the long-range consequences are quite predictable: the inability to form lasting relationships and utter loneliness at the end.
This week, think about how the problem of lying to oneself has shown up in your world. As you do, let your thinking be stimulated by these additional observations:
Our greatest illusion is to believe that we are what we think ourselves to be. — Henri-Frédéric Amiel
People everywhere enjoy believing things that they know are not true. It spares them the ordeal of thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for what they know. — Brooks Atkinson
Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life. — Kate Chopin
Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. — Joan Didion
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. — Richard Feynman
We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves. — Eric Hoffer
No estimate is more in danger of erroneous calculations than those by which a man computes the force of his own genius. — Dr. Samuel Johnson
It is the common failing of an ambitious mind to over-rate itself. — Caroline Lamb
There are certain faults which press too near our self-love to be even perceptible to us. — Hannah More
It is notorious that illusions are shattered by conflict with reality, so no real happiness, no real wit, no real profundity are tolerated where the illusion prevails. — Virginia Woolf
For source information on these quotations, and many other quotations on the topic of LYING TO ONESELF, go to Dr. Mardy's Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations.
Cartoon of the Week
Answer to This Week’s Puzzler:
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
The other quotation that appeared in Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was:
“That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
Sigmund Freud once said that Nietzsche was at his best when he was writing introspectively, and this legendary observation perfectly illustrates his point.
Dr. Mardy’s Observation of the Week
Thanks for joining me again this week. See you next Sunday morning, when the theme will be “Giving Advice”
Regarding My Lifelong Love of Quotations: A Personal Note
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