In my last post I wrote about denial — how it seems to be one of the default ways we deal with life. Today I want to focus on the first part of the growth journey, which is finding the truth. We cannot move forward in any area of life where we are stuck until we find out what the truth is. We’ll never get on a budget until we learn that we waste money. We’ll never work on becoming a better spouse until we learn that we are lacking in some important way. We will never get our eating under control until we first realize that it has been out of control.
Sometimes truth just dawns on us, almost inexplicably. One day we wake up and life looks different, the way the surface of a pond looks different when the morning sun refracts off of it, causing it to appear wholly other than how we normally see it. Other times someone “shares” the truth with us through a comment thinly disguised as a joke, and we get the hint. Other times the truth isn’t disguised at all, but hits head-on and we feel like the object of a full-scale intervention.
Regardless of how we find truth, it often stings. As uncomfortable as pre-truth life may have been, we had made a home there.
Maybe I was irresponsible in the way I managed my money, but some of those vacations were fun. Maybe I was unethical in business dealings, but it did help me get ahead. Maybe I was being hypocritical in the practice of my religion, but it did allow me to look respectable in the community while still living however I wanted to. We create a mythology in our lives, then bend our perceptions of ourselves to fit the mythology.
A great saint once prayed, “Lord, please either change my circumstances or fit me to them.” At any given time millions of people are hard at work, fitting themselves to the mythologies they have created, until eventually they cannot tell where they end and the mythologies begin. When we are doing this, we come to think the mythologies are our lives. And at the moment we first begin to suspect that this might not be true — the first time truth rears its head — we feel lost, confused, afraid, even angry. Truth is the ultimate cheese-mover. We believe something is this way, and it turns out to be that way, and now we don’t know what to think anymore. This can generate such intense discomfort that we may flip the denial switch and choose not to think about it, continuing on with life as before. If we do this, we will often get very prickly. We will try to avoid people and situations that might bring us into contact with the truth again, after all, we don’t want to feel the way we felt last time we got close to it. We will become very defensive. We might make comments like, “You just don’t understand my situation at all,” or “Who are you to judge me?” or “You’d do the same thing if you were in my position.”
It takes courage and character NOT to do this. Denial and defensiveness are the easiest paths. They do not require introspection, and they certainly do not require change. They allow us to stay where we are, clinging to our treasured mythologies that we have often spent years, or decades, creating. Once we have created them, we then fit ourselves to them and they come to define us. Because they define us, we can’t imagine who we’d be without them, or how we could ever live any other way. The person who finds truth and doesn’t retreat back into falsehood and mythology is, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule.
This can help us understand why life so often seems to be unfair. For example, nearly everyone believes he/she is valuable at work and deserves a raise. Certainly sometimes this is true, but have you ever met anyone who does not believe they deserve a raise? And is it really possible that all the people who believe they deserve a raise actually do? Of course not. But there are right now a significant number of people who believe they deserve a raise in spite of the fact that they are lazy, or steal from their company, or complain constantly. How can this be? Because they have fit themselves to their mythologies. The lazy person believes that he works every bit as hard as the company is paying him to work. The thief believes her crimes against the company compensate for wages they should have been paying her all along (she probably believes she is doing the company a favor, and actually being charitable, by not stealing as much as she might deserve to steal). The complainer believes his complaints are actually a means of bringing his company to justice. Thus all three can do what they do and at the same time easily continue to believe they deserve more money.
And what will the response be from each of these when they do not get the raises they expect and believe they deserve? Pick the best answer:
A.They will each write a humble letter of apology to their manager for their laziness, stealing, or complaining, and offer to make whatever amends are necessary.
B. They will each be furious, and believe beyond doubt that they have, once again, been cheated.
(You don’t really think it’s A do you? What mythology would actually allow you to think that?!)
Nearly always, the lazy person will get lazier, the thief will steal more frequently, and the complainer will complain more loudly, and each will then use the fact that they did not receive a raise to further justify their behaviors. This is how people fit themselves to their mythologies. These people will feel completely cheated and overlooked and will stew over how unfair life is. It is probably the case that life feels the most unfair to those who have created and come to live in the most elaborate mythologies (i.e., “lies,” or “falsehoods,” or “untruths”).
So the obvious question is what mythologies have you created around yourself and then fit yourself to? I realized a few months ago that I had created this mythology of the aloof intellectual who didn’t care what other people thought. As that mythology continues to crumble around me I begin to make sense of more and more things — like why I will check my blog stats ten times today to see how many people read this blog post. Of course it’s because I DO care what others think, and I am not as aloof as I pretend to be. That mythology has been a hard one to shed.
What are your mythologies? What are the untruths you cling to and depend on? What are the lies you choose to believe so you don’t have to change? How do you avoid being confronted with the truth?