Wednesday, November 07, 2007

I Hate, Therefore I Am

A recent email exchange with Hanno got me thinking more about self-deception. In particular I was thinking about how we tend to construct the narrative of our lives very differently at different stages in our history. What I mean by this becomes clear, I hope, when you think of how you tend to reevaluate your own life history in the face of someone that you despise. Let's say you despise someone--if you are being really honest--not because they are evil, bad, hurtful, or any other good reason, but because they have hurt you/you are jealous/or you feel rejected. I think these latter psychological processes are more interesting in relation to self-conceptions and self-deceptions (again, something Nietzsche was quite brilliant on in The Genealogy of Morals).

Back to my hypothesis. So you despise someone because they are a threat to you and the first thing it seems you do is redo your self-conception in a way that maximally highlights the ways in which you are different from the despised one. An example might make this clearer. Let's say that I despise Jane because she has successfully won the affections of a man who I have been pining over for months. I have never confessed my feelings to--let's call him--Dick. I was passive, waited for Dick to notice me, etc. But, Jane seduced Dick. I am hurt that Dick has chosen Jane rather than me and I grow to despise Jane.

Perhaps one of the first things I do is represent Jane as a big ole' Ho. She has no decorum, is unladylike, and requires male affection and attention to feel better about herself. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some truth to this view of Jane. However, a more compassionate person might find a way to relate to Jane's behavior and acknowledge her own weaknesses. But, a person hurt by Jane can only see these traits in the most negative light and then quickly work to build a self-conception that sees herself as the antithesis of Jane. I either omit, delete, or forget the parts of me that are like her and/or I trump up the moments in my life where I behaved better than Jane.

The reason I have been mulling over this is because Hanno suggested to me that perhaps our entire self-conception is nothing but fiction (or lies). We reinvent ourselves all the time given new events, challenges, or losses. My sense was if this is true, then we are likely to find relationships to others almost impossible and a downright miracle when they succeed. The capacity for truth-telling that is required, in my view, to foster needed compassion to approach people without fear and loathing is either non-existent (which I think is Hanno's view) or only certain angels can have this kind of moral courage and intellectual honesty.