Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I'm not deceiving myself, I just think positively

Warning: quasi-rant ahead.

The other day, someone told me that he is a “last-minute type of person.” From my perspective, though, he isn’t a “last-minute” type of anything; he’s lazy and irresponsible, and until he stops deceiving himself about it he won’t be able to change.

I see two steps in this sort of self-deception:
1) Transform the negative behavior from an action into a character trait
2) Find positive language to express it

Herewith some examples of “thinking positively” in order to fool ourselves:
I don’t fail to respond to email in a timely fashion; I’m an “old-fashioned letter-writer.”
I don’t refuse to give tzedakah; I’m “careful with my philanthropy.”
I don’t waffle; I’m “sympathetic to all perspectives.”
I don’t attack other people ad hominem; I just “get carried away in my passion.”
I don’t speak insensitively; I “shun political correctness.”

Imagine if the villains of the Torah could have used this method:
Paroh didn’t deny Divine authority - he was a “control freak.”
Bilam didn’t sell himself to the highest bidder - he was a “money player.”
Haman didn’t try to destroy the Jews in revenge for Mordechai’s disrespect - he was “an aggressive kind of guy.”
Mahmoud Ahmedinajad isn’t anti-Jewish - he just believes strongly in his cultural values.
(I’m sure there are plenty more; I’ll leave them to the comments section.)

This brand of positive self-redefinition is like the software programmer’s trick of labelling a bug a “design feature.” We avoid self-awareness, and we avoid apologizing and having to change, by re-labelling our weaknesses as character traits.

Where does this come from? The art of the cover-up often starts with parents and teachers and sympathetic friends, who use this method to avoid offering honest criticism. “He’s really a good guy, he just…” “My son is great at, he just ….” But flattery will get society nowhere.

Of course, if you lie to yourself but don’t let it affect social behavior, that’s only your problem. Self-delusion could, theoretically, be limited to personal delusion. Had Kayin kept his delusions to himself (“I’m not failing to give my best crops; I’m careful with my philanthropy”), Hevel would have survived.

But self-delusion is rarely a bloodless sport, because we live in a world of other human beings with whom we interact, and who are affected by the negative traits we conceal from ourselves. Shuls, community organizations, businesses, book clubs, we all depend on other people to function responsibly and productively, and when people turn a blind eye to their own character defects, the world suffers.

The answer isn’t for us clear-sighted people to go around highlighting everyone else’s flaws. Somehow, I don’t think תוכחה of “You’re not a last-minute type of person, you’re lazy,” or even something more mild, is really going to inspire change in all but a masochistic few.

No, the answer, as always, is to start by working on ourselves.

Too bad I don’t have any problematic traits to change.

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  1. Uh, oh, I feel the season coming on. Great job, Rabbi.

  2. Sweet post. And this is your best analogy to date:

    This brand of positive self-redefinition is like the software programmer’s trick of labelling a bug a “design feature.”

    Let's see. Maybe the best way to start is to list the character traits we think we have, and work backwards to how they could be flaws?

    I'll go first:
    I'm a planner, not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person. (Resolution: chill out. Sudden changes in plan are not the end of the world.)
    I'm sociable, but prefer time to myself over constant interaction. (Resolution: no, putting yourself in "timeout" when the baby has a tantrum is not acceptable parenting)
    I'm reasonably intelligent, and most things come easily to me. (Resolution: seek out challenges, and don't just accept the jobs where you know you won't have to work hard.)

    How's that for a start? ;)

  3. Therapydoc-
    Thanks. I was actually tempted to post this under "Rosh haShanah" but opted not to do it...

    That sounds like a great way to find our flaws... or, at least, to earn a ticket to therapydoc's office...