We are a clever species. We not only have the capability of fooling others; we have the ability of fooling ourselves. Having never been inside the mind of an animal, naturally, I do not know if any other creature is able to lie to itself, but we most certainly are able. It is an astounding thing, rationalization. The very source of an untruth, through a series of choices and thoughts, may actually come to believe in his own lie. We see it all the time.
In my experience, this typically occurs in one of two situations: 1) I want something I know is not good. 2) I’ve done something wrong.
In the midst of processing through either situation, a choice to lie to ourselves appears. We often take it. We often, clever as we are, forget that we have done so, having shifted our view of the world ever-so-slightly. They say people don’t change. Look in a mirror. Are you the same person you were ten years ago? I know I’m not. Small choices over time affect us, for better or for worse. This is true in an individual, but I believe it is true for a society and a culture as well. Small choices, slight shifts in view, change how everything is interpreted.
We, as a people, have strong desires, and often they are desires we know to be wrong. This doesn’t make us desire any less fervently, however. Possessing this strange skill of being able to tell a lie to ourselves and then eventually to believe it, we have given reign to many desires we used to know were wrong. But we don’t know any more.
We painted over our canvas. The truth is likely still buried beneath the layers of paint somewhere, but uncovering it is laborious, difficult work if we deal only in introspection. As I said before, I believe that we as a society have painted over the truth, wanting our desires to be considered right.
Popular morality today is different than it used to be. How could it not? Ever age has its own set of vices and virtues, traps that ensnare it and rays of light that shine through. Morality is not a thing to be decided upon by men, but we have done so over time. Having strong, yet inappropriate desires, we have come up with a solution. I think I will never hear it put better than Tim Chaddick, pastor of a Los Angeles church, once said, “Self-denial is the new immorality.”
I think he’s right. In looking at what our culture values and what it frowns upon, it is rather striking how convenient our morality is. I am to believe that my desires are good and as long as I’m not “hurting anybody” (whatever that may mean), I’m good. I should never deprive myself. I owe this to myself. I deserve to be happy, regardless of how I get that happiness.
I urge you not to misunderstand my next point, for as I’ve said before I believe Epicureanism and Stoicism to be equivalent evils, and the self-righteous man is probably worse off in some ways than someone who isn’t even trying. Something being hard doesn’t necessarily qualify as good simply because it is difficult, I understand. Thus, with all of my qualifiers out of the way, I ask this question: since when is doing the right thing so easy?
I venture into strange waters now for the sake of telling you a story, but I think that the heart of the tale is an important one. Many years ago, when I was a student, the issue of being under torture came up. I cannot remember why or in what context we were speaking about torture; I only remember a conversation I had afterwards with another student. The hypothetical situation arose where one of us was to be put under the strains of torture, being interrogated for the location of our hidden comrades. I had stated something along the lines of saying that it was a hard and tragic thing, but you have to hold back confession, because other people are depending on you. If the enemy finds your friends, bad things are sure to follow. This shocked the other student, who insisted that you have to give in because they’re hurting you, and no one would expect you to endure such pains.
I am not a veteran. I have never served in the military. I have no idea what undergoing torture must be like, but I know that giving up the lives of your friends because you’re hurting is not right. Yet I dare say the sympathy that the other student expressed seemed right to many others. It was inconceivable to them that you must hold out in such a situation.
I think this is a symptom of the lies we have told ourselves. If it is uncomfortable, we think it’s wrong. We look out for ourselves first and foremost. This is extremely convenient, and it aligns with our baser desires. Notions of sacrifice and selflessness make for good stories, but we discard them in everyday philosophy.
“Self-denial is the new immorality.”
We’ve told ourselves another lie, and that is that we are all counter-culture. How absurd when so many people share the same opinions, opinions that are extremely mainstream today? Let’s be truly counter-culture. Let’s be selfless.