Reflections on Courage and Truth: Are you mentally healthy or one sick little puppy?


Reflections on Courage and Truth: Are you mentally healthy or one sick little puppy?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all . . . ”

(Compare the following excerpt with Pascal’s thoughts on “Flattery, Truth, and the Ego.” This is how most of us develop and maintain our sense of self and borrow our emotional pseudo-stability. And it’s really quite sad. Because if we stopped to look at what we’re doing to ourselves and if we really thought about it, is this really what we would want for ourselves? Or for our children?—is this what we would want to raise them to do and how to be?)

“Most people must look at themselves only from a distance—and only through the false and distorted reflection of others—in order to find themselves at all tolerable or attractive to behold. Self-knowledge is strictly off limits for them. Thus people such as these (which is to say the vast majority of us) are very well defended against their own spying and sieges, against their own attempts at self-knowledge. Their self-attempts at self-knowledge are futile—they are rarely able to make out any more of themselves than their outer fortifications. The actual stronghold is inaccessible to them, even invisible—unless—unless friends and enemies turn traitor and lead them there.”

– Nietzsche, from “Human All Too Human” # 49, and “The Gay Science,” # 15

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Metal health will drive you crazy, metal health will cure you sane” (or something like that)

(From “The Road Less Traveled,” by M. Scott Peck, pp. 50-63.)

Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.

What does a life of total dedication to truth (reality) mean?

First of all, it means a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination.

We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we most not only examine it, but we must simultaneously examine the examiner.

Examination of the world without is never as personally painful and unsettling as examination of the world within, and it is because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination that the vast majority of people steer away from it, distracting and anesthetizing themselves to it through various means (drinking, shopping, television, movies, bar-hopping, superficial relationships and interactions, “having a good time,” dissipating ourselves in thousands of ways).

Yet when one is dedicated to the truth the pain inherent in it seems relatively unimportant—and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful)—the farther one proceeds down the path of self-examination.

Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. To overcome this pain we must be totally dedicated to truth. That is to say, we must always hold truth, as best as we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our own comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth.

Thus a life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of total honesty. It means a continuous and never-ending process of self-monitoring to assure that our words and deeds match and that our communications invariably reflect as accurately as possible the truth or reality as we know it.

Such honesty does not come easily or painlessly. The reason people lie or shade the truth is to avoid the pain of challenge and it consequences.

Insofar as the nature of a challenge is legitimate—and it usually is much more often than not—lying is an attempt to circumvent legitimate suffering and hence is productive of mental illness.

Most people are resistant to challenge. They talk volubly enough about this or that, but they leave out crucial details. They are wasting time in their effort to avoid challenge, and usually they are indulging in a subtle form of lying.

Thus a life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged.

The only way to revise our understanding of reality is to expose our map to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers. Otherwise we live in a closed-system—within a bell jar, to use Sylvia Plath’s analogy—rebreathing our own fetid air, and more and more subject to delusions.

Yet because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality, we almost always seek reflexively to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity.

Leading a life of total dedication to truth and of openness to challenge may seem like a never-ending burden, an extraordinary task, a “real drag.” And indeed it is difficult; it is a never-ending burden of self-discipline and calling ourselves out on our self-deceptive and avoidant tendencies. Which is why most people opt for a life of very limited openness and honesty and relative closedness and self-deceit, hiding themselves and their maps from the world and others.*

It’s easier that way.

Yet the rewards of the difficult life of honesty and dedication to the truth are more than commensurate with the demands. By virtue of the fact that their maps are continually being challenged, open people are continually growing people and strengthening as human beings. Through their courage and openness, they can establish and maintain intimate relationships far more effectively and more deeply than closed people can. And because they are dedicated to being impeccable with their word and not speaking falsely, they know that they have done nothing to contribute to the confusion and darkness in the world. They don’t have to slink around in the shadows, construct new lies to hide and maintain old ones, and waste time and effort covering their tracks and maintaining their disguises (their false selves).

Ultimately open and growing people find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty and dedication to truth is far less than the energy required for secretiveness, deception and avoidance. The more honest and transparent one is, the easier it is to continue being honest and transparent, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again and more frequently.

By their openness, people dedicated to truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become more and more free from fear.

The healing of the spirit has not been completed until openness to challenge and a fierce dedication to truth become a way of life.

(*Peck is talking about the “emotional cutoff” here. He is talking about the tendency that the vast majority of us have to act out on what’s worst and weakest in ourselves and to emotionally cut off or banish those who do not flatter us and who do not reflect back to us ourselves in a way we wish to be seen. Those around us who see us too accurately, or whose gaze is too perceptive and unsettling, so much so that it makes us uncomfortable, we avoid them, emotionally cut them off and cut them out of our life, banish and excise them. We’d rather live in a hall of mirrors life in a funhouse, being surrounded by those who are so weak and unloving and who care so little about us that they reflect back to us our distorted and malignant sense of self while we provide the same disservice to them. [a mutual admiration and distortion society].).

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Rilke on “Acting Just Once with Beauty & Courage” (from “Letters to a Young Poet”; letter no. eight)

We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it.

This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.

If we imagine the being of our person as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. And in this way they have a certain security. Yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells? We, however, are not prisoners.

If our world has terrors, they are likely our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. If only we would arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then that which now appears to us as most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.

Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

And this fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the reality of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has, as it were, been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank where nothing new can occur. For it is not inertia and indolence alone that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new and inconceivable experience with which we feel ourselves ill-equipped to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another human being as something alive and will himself sound and draw on the depths of his own being.

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“Get busy living or get busy dying,” or “If you’re not growing, you’re dying . . . “

(From “The Way of Transformation,” by Karlfried Graf Durchheim, pp. 107-108.)

[T]he aim of a genuine spiritual practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a person to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, a person’s spiritual practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to dare to let his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and a comfortable life go in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites.

The first necessity is that we should have the courage to face life in all its intensity, and to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.

When this is possible, meditation itself becomes the means by which we accept and welcome the fears and anxieties and demons which arise from the unconscious—a process very different from the practice of concentration on some object as a protection against such forces.

Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of discomfort and annihilation can our contact with what is Divine, and with what is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable. The more we learn wholeheartedly to confront the world and a patterned way of living and reacting that threatens us each with isolation, the more the depths of our own being will be revealed and the more the possibilities of new life and inner transformation will be opened to us.

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Pascal on Truth, Flattery, and the Ego


From the “Pensées,” pp. 348-350, Penguin edition.—

It is no doubt an evil to be full of faults, but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and unwilling to recognize them, since this entails the further evil of deliberate self-delusion.

We do not want others to deceive us; we do not think it right for them to want us to esteem them more than they deserve; we do not think it is right either that we should deceive them and want them to esteem us more than we deserve.

Thus when [others] merely reveal vices and imperfections which we actually possess, it is obvious that they do us no wrong, since they are not responsible for them, but are really doing us good, by helping us to escape from an evil, namely our ignorance of these imperfections. We ought not to be annoyed that they know them and despise us, because it is right that they should know us for what we are and despise us if we are despicable.

These are the feelings which would spring from a heart full of equity and justice.

What then should we say of ours, seeing it quite differently disposed? For is it not true that we hate the truth and those who tell it to us, and we like them to be deceived to our advantage, and want to be esteemed by them as other than we actually are? . . .

This aversion for truth exists in differing degrees, but it may be said that it exists in everyone to some degree, because it is inseparable from (unhealthy or immature) self-love (narcissism). It is this false delicacy which makes those who have to correct others choose so many devious ways and qualifications to avoid giving offense. They must minimize our faults, pretend to excuse them, and combine this with praise and marks of affection and esteem. Even then such medicine still tastes bitter to self-love, which takes as little of it as possible, always with disgust and often with secret resentment against those administering it.

The result is that anyone who has an interest in winning our affection tends to avoid rendering us a service which he knows to be unwelcome; we are treated as we want to be treated—we hate the truth and so it is kept from us, we desire to be flattered and so we are flattered, we like being deceived and so we are deceived.

This is why each rung of fortune’s ladder which leads us up in the world takes us further from the truth, because people are more wary of offending those whose friendship is most useful and whose enmity is most dangerous. . . . [T]elling the truth is useful to the hearer but harmful to those who tell it. . . .

[The ego] conceives a deadly hatred for the truth which rebukes it and which convinces it of its faults. It would like to do away with this truth, and not being able to destroy it as such, it destroys it, as best it can, in the consciousness of itself and others; that is, it takes every care to hide its faults both from itself and others, and cannot bear to have them pointed out or noticed.

[Thus] human life is nothing but a perpetual illusion; there is nothing but mutual deception and flattery. No one talks about us in our presence as he would in our absence. Human relations are only based on this mutual deception. Few friendships would survive if everyone knew what his friend said about him behind his back, even though he spoke sincerely and dispassionately.

Man is therefore nothing but disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy, both in himself and with regard to others. He does not want to be told the truth. He avoids telling it to others, and all these tendencies, so remote from justice and reason, are naturally rooted in his heart.