Originally posted on 08-15-07:
I mentioned Point of Inquiry in my last post, and I’m reading a book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me); Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, because the POI interview with Carol was so good. (There’s a link to the book on POI, which takes you to Amazon, but if you click through POI they get a cut of the Amazon price, which is a “good” thing.) The authors are social psychologists, and they cite studies which back up their assertions—this seems to be very reliable information.
The subject is pretty clear from the title, but to put it in my own words, it’s about self-deception: how prone we human beings are to it—it’s universal, to one degree or another—and how difficult it is to eliminate. The final chapter is about how to circumvent it, which I’m looking forward to, but in the meantime, it has brought to mind my prior experience with self-deception.
I’ve mentioned the puppy-chasing-its-tail insight many times, and how that insight gave me the impetus to continually examine my thinking and behavior in an attempt to avoid the experience of waking up to find I’d been chasing an illusion in circles. That has been a great help to me, but it hasn’t kept me from making some pretty big errors.
The biggest of those was thinking pot was a long-term solution to the happiness problem. When I recognized that error it devastated my world/self view. I’ve given a detailed description of that train wreck in the Journal.I came to the conclusion that everything I knew was wrong, and spent 9 years in AA trying to find a more reliable approach to life. I’ve spent the 14 years since I left AA trying to refine that approach, and in the last couple of years I’ve decided that I threw out the baby with the bath water when I quit pot and other drugs. (Caffein is all I have left between me and what my friend Ernie called, “Being on the Natch.”) There were some nuggets of truth in my prior life that have been revealed by the erosion of time. So I was wrong when I came to the conclusion that everything I knew was wrong—I was wrong about being totally wrong.
It’s hard to say whether drugs were a major detour in my life-long enterprise of discovering the “truth,” or a necessary part of my education. The transition to sobriety certainly ratcheted up my alertness a lot, and I think that kind of in-your-face, unavoidable confrontation with our convoluted thinking processes may be necessary to jolt us out of our built-in delusions. Still, there is no permanent cure, and the tendency to alter memory and perception to match our ideas will be with us, no doubt, till death. Given that, I welcome Tavris and Aronson’s hoped-for contribution to the tool kit, and am looking forward to that last chapter: “Letting Go and Owning Up.”
I used to say, “You know you’re getting old when your past becomes as much a mystery as your future,” but I think, whether we realize it or not, our brains are always constructing a past that varies greatly from what actually happened, from childhood onwards. What we take for our ordinary experience is really Never-Never Land: Our brains give us enough information about the real world to navigate, physically and socially, but the real world—beyond quarks and quasars; beyond our fantasies of who we and our friends are—is forever beyond our grasp.
While the search for truth can be fascinating, and can improve our overall quality of life, a healthy tolerance for mystery is necessary for equanimity. If we can learn to relish mystery, being human can actually become amusing, entertaining, and joyful.