You can use words to manipulate the world into delivering what you want. This is what it means to “act politically.” This is spin. It’s the specialty of unscrupulous marketers, salesmen, advertisers, pickup artists, slogan-possessed Utopians and psychopaths. It’s the speech people engage in when they attempt to influence and manipulate others. It’s what university students do when they write an essay to please the professor, instead of articulating and clarifying their own ideas. It’s what everyone does when they want something, and decide to falsify themselves to please and flatter. It’s scheming and sloganeering and propaganda.
To conduct life like this is to become possessed by some ill-formed desire, and then to craft speech and action in a manner that appears likely, rationally, to bring about that end. Typical calculated ends might include “to impose my ideological beliefs,” “to prove that I am (or was) right,” “to appear competent,” “to ratchet myself up the dominance hierarchy,” “to avoid responsibility” (or its twin, “to garner credit for others’ actions”), “to be promoted,” “to attract the lion’s share of attention,” “to ensure that everyone likes me,” “to garner the benefits of martyrdom,” “to justify my cynicism,” “to rationalize my antisocial outlook,” “to minimize immediate conflict,” “to maintain my naivete,” “to capitalize on my vulnerability,” “to always appear as the sainted one,” or (this one is particularly evil) “to ensure that it is always my unloved child’s fault.” These are all examples of what Sigmund Freud’s compatriot, the lesser-known Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, called “life-lies.”—
Someone living a life-lie is attempting to manipulate reality with perception, thought and action, so that only some narrowly desired and pre-defined outcome is allowed to exist. A life lived in this manner is based, consciously or unconsciously, on two premises. The first is that current knowledge is sufficient to define what is good, unquestioningly, far into the future. The second is that reality would be unbearable if left to its own devices. The first presumption is philosophically unjustifiable. What you are currently aiming at might not be worth attaining, just as what you are currently doing might be an error. The second is even worse. It is valid only if reality is intrinsically intolerable and, simultaneously, something that can be successfully manipulated and distorted. Such speaking and thinking requires the arrogance and certainty that the English poet John Milton’s genius identified with Satan, God’s highest angel gone most spectacularly wrong. The faculty of rationality inclines dangerously to pride: all I know is all that needs to be known. Pride falls in love with its own creations, and tries to make them absolute.
I have seen people define their utopia and then bend their lives into knots trying to make it reality. A left-leaning student adopts a trendy, anti-authority stance and spends the next twenty years working resentfully to topple the windmills of his imagination. An eighteen-year-old decides, arbitrarily, that she wants to retire at fifty-two. She works for three decades to make that happen, failing to notice that she made that decision when she was little more than a child. What did she know about her fifty-two-year-old self, when still a teenager? Even now, many years later, she has only the vaguest, lowest-resolution idea of her post-work Eden. She refuses to notice. What did her life mean, if that initial goal was wrong? She’s afraid of opening Pandora’s box, where all the troubles of the world reside. But hope is in there, too. Instead, she warps her life to fit the fantasies of a sheltered adolescent.
A naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie. One forty-something client told me his vision, formulated by his younger self: “I see myself retired, sitting on a tropical beach, drinking margaritas in the sunshine.” That’s not a plan. That’s a travel poster. After eight margaritas, you’re fit only to await the hangover. After three weeks of margarita-filled days, if you have any sense, you’re bored stiff and self-disgusted. In a year, or less, you’re pathetic. It’s just not a sustainable approach to later life. This kind of oversimplification and falsification is particularly typical of ideologues. They adopt a single axiom: government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad. Then they filter and screen their experiences and insist ever more narrowly that everything can be explained by that axiom. They believe, narcissistically, underneath all that bad theory, that the world could be put right, if only they held the controls.
There is another fundamental problem, too, with the life-lie, particularly when it is based on avoidance. A sin of commission occurs when you do something you know to be wrong. A sin of omission occurs when you let something bad happen when you could do something to stop it. The former is regarded, classically, as more serious than the latter— than avoidance. I’m not so sure.
Consider the person who insists that everything is right in her life. She avoids conflict, and smiles, and does what she is asked to do. She finds a niche and hides in it. She does not question authority or put her own ideas forward, and does not complain when mistreated. She strives for invisibility, like a fish in the centre of a swarming school. But a secret unrest gnaws at her heart. She is still suffering, because life is suffering. She is lonesome and isolated and unfulfilled. But her obedience and self-obliteration eliminate all the meaning from her life. She has become nothing but a slave, a tool for others to exploit. She does not get what she wants, or needs, because doing so would mean speaking her mind. So, there is nothing of value in her existence to counter-balance life’s troubles. And that makes her sick.
It might be the noisy troublemakers who disappear, first, when the institution you serve falters and shrinks. But it’s the invisible who will be sacrificed next. Someone hiding is not someone vital. Vitality requires original contribution. Hiding also does not save the conforming and conventional from disease, insanity, death and taxes. And hiding from others also means suppressing and hiding the potentialities of the unrealized self. And that’s the problem.
If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself. That does not only mean that you suppress who you are, although it also means that. It means that so much of what you could be will never be forced by necessity to come forward. This is a biological truth, as well as a conceptual truth. When you explore boldly, when you voluntarily confront the unknown, you gather information and build your renewed self out of that information. That is the conceptual element. However, researchers have recently discovered that new genes in the central nervous system turn themselves on when an organism is placed (or places itself) in a new situation. These genes code for new proteins. These proteins are the building blocks for new structures in the brain. This means that a lot of you is still nascent, in the most physical of senses, and will not be called forth by stasis. You have to say something, go somewhere and do things to get turned on. And, if not … you remain incomplete, and life is too hard for anyone incomplete.
If you say no to your boss, or your spouse, or your mother, when it needs to be said, then you transform yourself into someone who can say no when it needs to be said. If you say yes when no needs to be said, however, you transform yourself into someone who can only say yes, even when it is very clearly time to say no. If you ever wonder how perfectly ordinary, decent people could find themselves doing the terrible things the gulag camp guards did, you now have your answer. By the time no seriously needed to be said, there was no one left capable of saying it.
If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it will, inevitably. You will hide, but there will be no place left to hide. And then you will find yourself doing terrible things.
Only the most cynical, hopeless philosophy insists that reality could be improved through falsification. Such a philosophy judges Being and becoming alike, and deems them flawed. It denounces truth as insufficient and the honest man as deluded. It is a philosophy that both brings about and then justifies the endemic corruption of the world.
It is not vision as such, and not a plan devised to achieve a vision, that is at fault under such circumstances. A vision of the future, the desirable future, is necessary. Such a vision links action taken now with important, long-term, foundational values. It lends actions in the present significance and importance. It provides a frame limiting uncertainty and anxiety.
It’s not vision. It is instead willful blindness. It’s the worst sort of lie. It’s subtle. It avails itself of easy rationalizations. Willful blindness is the refusal to know something that could be known. It’s refusal to admit that the knocking sound means someone at the door. It’s refusal to acknowledge the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, the elephant under the carpet, the skeleton in the closet. It’s refusal to admit to error while pursuing the plan. Every game has rules. Some of the most important rules are implicit. You accept them merely by deciding to play the game. The first of these rules is that the game is important. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t be playing it. Playing a game defines it as important. The second is that moves undertaken during the game are valid if they help you win. If you make a move and it isn’t helping you win, then, by definition, it’s a bad move. You need to try something different. You remember the old joke: insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
If you’re lucky, and you fail, and you try something new, you move ahead. If that doesn’t work, you try something different again. A minor modification will suffice in fortunate circumstances. It is therefore prudent to begin with small changes, and see if they help. Sometimes, however, the entire hierarchy of values is faulty, and the whole edifice has to be abandoned. The whole game must be changed. That’s a revolution, with all the chaos and terror of a revolution. It’s not something to be engaged in lightly, but it’s sometimes necessary. Error necessitates sacrifice to correct it, and serious error necessitates serious sacrifice. To accept the truth means to sacrifice—and if you have rejected the truth for a long time, then you’ve run up a dangerously large sacrificial debt. Forest fires burn out deadwood and return trapped elements to the soil. Sometimes, however, fires are suppressed, artificially. That does not stop the deadwood from accumulating. Sooner or later, a fire will start. When it does, it will burn so hot that everything will be destroyed—even the soil in which the forest grows.
The prideful, rational mind, comfortable with its certainty, enamoured of its own brilliance, is easily tempted to ignore error, and to sweep dirt under the rug. Literary, existential philosophers, beginning with S0ren Kierkegaard, conceived of this mode of Being as “inauthentic.” An inauthentic person continues to perceive and act in ways his own experience has demonstrated false. He does not speak with his own voice.
“Did what I want happen? No. Then my aim or my methods were wrong. I still have something to learn.” That is the voice of authenticity.
“Did what I want happen? No. Then the world is unfair. People are jealous, and too stupid to understand. It is the fault of something or someone else.” That is the voice of inauthenticity. It is not too far from there to “they should be stopped” or “they must be hurt” or “they must be destroyed.” Whenever you hear about something incomprehensibly brutal, such ideas have manifested themselves.
There is no blaming any of this on unconsciousness, either, or repression. When the individual lies, he knows it. He may blind himself to the consequences of his actions. He may fail to analyze and articulate his past, so that he does not understand. He may even forget that he lied and so be unconscious of that fact. But he was conscious, in the present, during the commission of each error, and the omission of each responsibility. At that moment, he knew what he was up to. And the sins of the inauthentic individual compound and corrupt the state.
Someone power-hungry makes a new rule at your workplace. It’s unnecessary. It’s counterproductive. It’s an irritant. It removes some of the pleasure and meaning from your work. But you tell yourself it’s all right. It’s not worth complaining about. Then it happens again. You’ve already trained yourself to allow such things, by failing to react the first time. You’re a little less courageous. Your opponent, unopposed, is a little bit stronger. The institution is a little bit more corrupt. The process of bureaucratic stagnation and oppression is underway, and you’ve contributed, by pretending that it was OK. Why not complain? Why not take a stand? If you do, other people, equally afraid to speak up, may come to your defence. And if not—maybe it’s time for revolution. Maybe you should find a job somewhere else, where your soul is less in danger from corruption.
For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8 : 36 )
One of the major contributions of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, was his analysis of the direct causal relationship between the pathology of the Soviet prison-work-camp dependent state (where millions suffered and died) and the almost universal proclivity of the Soviet citizen to falsify his own day-to-day personal experience, deny his own state-induced suffering, and thereby prop up the dictates of the rational, ideology-possessed communist system. It was this bad faith, this denial, that in Solzhenitsyn’s opinion aided and abetted that great paranoid mass-murderer, Joseph Stalin, in his crimes. Solzhenitsyn wrote the truth, his truth, hard-learned through his own experiences in the camps, exposing the lies of the Soviet state. No educated person dared defend that ideology again after Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago. No one could ever say again, “What Stalin did, that was not true communism.”
Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor who wrote the classic Man’s Search for Meaning, drew a similar social-psychological conclusion: deceitful, inauthentic individual existence is the precursor to social totalitarianism. Sigmund Freud, for his part, analogously believed that “repression” contributed in a non-trivial manner to the development of mental illness (and the difference between repression of truth and a lie is a matter of degree, not kind). Alfred Adler knew it was lies that bred sickness. C.G. Jung knew that moral problems plagued his patients, and that such problems were caused by untruth. All these thinkers, all centrally concerned with pathology both individual and cultural, came to the same conclusion: lies warp the structure of Being. Untruth corrupts the soul and the state alike, and one form of corruption feeds the other.
I have repeatedly observed the transformation of mere existential misery into outright hell by betrayal and deceit. The barely manageable crisis of a parent’s terminal illness can be turned, for example, into something awful beyond description by the unseemly and petty squabbling of the sufferer’s adult children. Obsessed by the unresolved past, they gather like ghouls around the deathbed, forcing tragedy into an unholy dalliance with cowardice and resentment.
The inability of a son to thrive independently is exploited by a mother bent on shielding her child from all disappointment and pain. He never leaves, and she is never lonely. It’s an evil conspiracy, forged slowly, as the pathology unfolds, by thousands of knowing winks and nods. She plays the martyr, doomed to support her son, and garners nourishing sympathy, like a vampire, from supporting friends. He broods in his basement, imagining himself oppressed. He fantasizes with delight about the havoc he might wreak on the world that rejected him for his cowardice, awkwardness and inability. And sometimes he wreaks precisely that havoc. And everyone asks, “Why?” They could know, but refuse to.
Even well-lived lives can, of course, be warped and hurt and twisted by illness and infirmity and uncontrollable catastrophe. Depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, like cancer, all involve biological factors beyond the individual’s immediate control. The difficulties intrinsic to life itself are sufficient to weaken and overwhelm each of us, pushing us beyond our limits, breaking us at our weakest point. Not even the best-lived life provides an absolute defence against vulnerability. But the family that fights in the ruins of their earthquake-devastated dwelling place is much less likely to rebuild than the family made strong by mutual trust and devotion. Any natural weakness or existential challenge, no matter how minor, can be magnified into a serious crisis with enough deceit in the individual, family or culture.
The honest human spirit may continually fail in its attempts to bring about Paradise on Earth. It may manage, however, to reduce the suffering attendant on existence to bearable levels. The tragedy of Being is the consequence of our limitations and the vulnerability defining human experience. It may even be the price we pay for Being itself—since existence must be limited, to be at all.
I have seen a husband adapt honestly and courageously while his wife descended into terminal dementia. He made the necessary adjustments, step by step. He accepted help when he needed it. He refused to deny her sad deterioration and in that manner adapted gracefully to it. I saw the family of that same woman come together in a supporting and sustaining manner as she lay dying, and gain newfound connections with each other— brother, sisters, grandchildren and father—as partial but genuine compensation for their loss. I have seen my teenage daughter live through the destruction of her hip and her ankle and survive two years of continual, intense pain and emerge with her spirit intact. I watched her younger brother voluntarily and without resentment sacrifice many opportunities for friendship and social engagement to stand by her and us while she suffered. With love, encouragement, and character intact, a human being can be resilient beyond imagining. What cannot be borne, however, is the absolute ruin produced by tragedy and deception.
The capacity of the rational mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimize, mislead, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalize, bias, exaggerate and obscure is so endless, so remarkable, that centuries of pre-scientific thought, concentrating on clarifying the nature of moral endeavour, regarded it as positively demonic. This is not because of rationality itself, as a process. That process can produce clarity and progress. It is because rationality is subject to the single worst temptation—to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute.
We can turn to the great poet John Milton, once again, to clarify just what this means. Over thousands of years of history, the Western world wrapped a dream-like fantasy about the nature of evil around its central religious core. That fantasy had a protagonist, an adversarial personality, absolutely dedicated to the corruption of Being. Milton took it upon himself to organize, dramatize and articulate the essence of this collective dream, and gave it life, in the figure of Satan—Lucifer, the “light bearer.” He writes of Lucifer’s primal temptation, and its immediate consequences:—
He trusted to have equaled the most High,
If he opposed; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Raised impious War in Heaven and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire …
Lucifer, in Milton’s eyes—the spirit of reason—was the most wondrous angel brought forth from the void by God. This can be read psychologically. Reason is something alive. It lives in all of us. It’s older than any of us. It’s best understood as a personality, not a faculty. It has its aims, and its temptations, and its weaknesses. It flies higher and sees farther than any other spirit. But reason falls in love with itself, and worse. It falls in love with its own productions. It elevates them, and worships them as absolutes. Lucifer is, therefore, the spirit of totalitarianism. He is flung from Heaven into Hell because such elevation, such rebellion against the Highest and Incomprehensible, inevitably produces Hell.
To say it again: it is the greatest temptation of the rational faculty to glorify its own capacity and its own productions and to claim that in the face of its theories nothing transcendent or outside its domain need exist. This means that all important facts have been discovered. This means that nothing important remains unknown. But most importantly, it means denial of the necessity for courageous individual confrontation with Being. What is going to save you? The totalitarian says, in essence, “You must rely on faith in what you already know.” But that is not what saves. What saves is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know. That is faith in the possibility of human transformation. That is faith in the sacrifice of the current self for the self that could be. The totalitarian denies the necessity for the individual to take ultimate responsibility for Being.
That denial is the meaning of rebellion against “the most High.” That is what totalitarian means: Everything that needs to be discovered has been discovered. Everything will unfold precisely as planned. All problems will vanish, forever, once the perfect system is accepted. Milton’s great poem was a prophecy. As rationality rose ascendant from the ashes of Christianity, the great threat of total systems accompanied it. Communism, in particular, was attractive not so much to oppressed workers, its hypothetical beneficiaries, but to intellectuals—to those whose arrogant pride in intellect assured them they were always right. But the promised utopia never emerged. Instead humanity experienced the inferno of Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the citizens of those states were required to betray their own experience, turn against their fellow citizens, and die in the tens of millions.
There is an old Soviet joke. An American dies and goes to hell. Satan himself shows him around. They pass a large cauldron. The American peers in. It’s full of suffering souls, burning in hot pitch. As they struggle to leave the pot, low-ranking devils, sitting on the rim, pitchfork them back in. The American is properly shocked. Satan says, “That’s where we put sinful Englishmen.” The tour continues. Soon the duo approaches a second cauldron. It’s slightly larger, and slightly hotter. The American peers in. It is also full of suffering souls, all wearing berets. Devils are pitchforking would-be escapees back into this cauldron, as well. “That’s where we put sinful Frenchmen,” Satan says. In the distance is a third cauldron. It’s much bigger, and is glowing, white hot. The American can barely get near it. Nonetheless, at Satan’s insistence, he approaches it and peers in. It is absolutely packed with souls, barely visible, under the surface of the boiling liquid. Now and then, however, one clambers out of the pitch and desperately reaches for the rim. Oddly, there are no devils sitting on the edge of this giant pot, but the clamberer disappears back under the surface anyway. The American asks, “Why are there no demons here to keep everyone from escaping?” Satan replies, “This is where we put the Russians. If one tries to escape, the others pull him back in.”
Milton believed that stubborn refusal to change in the face of error not only meant ejection from heaven, and subsequent degeneration into an ever-deepening hell, but the rejection of redemption itself. Satan knows full well that even if he was willing to seek reconciliation, and God willing to grant it, he would only rebel again, because he will not change. Perhaps it is this prideful stubbornness that constitutes the mysterious unforgivable sin against the Holy Ghost:
… Farewell happy Fields
Where Joy forever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be changed by Place or Time.
This is no afterlife fantasy. This is no perverse realm of post-existence torture for political enemies. This is an abstract idea, and abstractions are often more real than what they represent. The idea that hell exists in some metaphysical manner is not only ancient, and pervasive; it’s true. Hell is eternal. It has always existed. It exists now. It’s the most barren, hopeless and malevolent subdivision of the underworld of chaos, where disappointed and resentful people forever dwell.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.
Those who have lied enough, in word and action, live there, in hell—now. Take a walk down any busy urban street. Keep your eyes open and pay attention. You will see people who are there, now. These are the people to whom you instinctively give a wide berth. These are the people who are immediately angered if you direct your gaze toward them, although sometimes they will instead turn away in shame. I saw a horribly damaged street alcoholic do exactly that in the presence of my young daughter. He wanted above all to avoid seeing his degraded state incontrovertibly reflected in her eyes.
It is deceit that makes people miserable beyond what they can bear. It is deceit that fills human souls with resentment and vengefulness. It is deceit that produces the terrible suffering of mankind: the death camps of the Nazis; the torture chambers and genocides of Stalin and that even greater monster, Mao. It was deceit that killed hundreds of millions of people in the twentieth century. It was deceit that almost doomed civilization itself. It is deceit that still threatens us, most profoundly, today.