Self-deception begins in childhood, as a way of escaping a sense of failure. When small children lose at some game, some of them say: “Well I wasn’t really trying. It’s a silly game and I don’t want to play it.”
When they get older, the self-deception bolsters itself with reasons. Suppose one is to learn Greek in order to do business in Greece. The learning process becomes tiresome, and is abandoned: “There’s no point in learning it anyway. Anyone who is anyone there speaks English.” Or perhaps it is classical Greek, to read the wisdom of Heraclitus and Plato and Aristotle. Again it turns out to require more application than is on offer, so the study is dropped: “Why not read them in translation? It’s the ideas that matter, not the words. If you want to study Relativity, you don’t have to learn German because Einstein first wrote in German.”
A third stage can be reached, in which it is claimed that a failure, when properly interpreted, is in fact the goal. It as though the archer shoots at a target on a stand. His arrow falls short and sticks in the ground, but he runs up and detaches the target from the stand, makes a hole in the centre, and then drapes it round his arrow, claiming that he has hit the gold.
In spiritual training, this last becomes the doctrine of “humbly carrying out menial tasks, with no egoistic aspirations to wider horizons of experience. Just humble workers.” Sometimes people have given up spiritual aspiration and are satisfied only with this role. Outwardly (and often ostentatiously) humble, and inwardly self-righteous and arrogant, such students spread apathy all around. The divine fire in them is veiled under a thick smoke of self-deception, arising from underlying fear. They keep busy against the advancing edge of Nothing.
Dr Shastri used often to cite Confucius, who said “When the archer misses the target he doesn’t blame the target, he blames himself”. A humorous extension of this is the idea, “Yes, I did miss the target, but the target was not worthy of my arrow.” It can be even further extended: the bad archer whose arrow does not get into the target but sticks into the ground half way there, rushes up to the target, pulls it off, makes a hole in it and drapes it round the arrow. Then he says triumphantly: “Look, I’ve hit the bulls-eye.”
These caricatures illustrate the human weakness of trying to cover up failure by pretending that it has not been failure after all. Instead of striving to attain the goal the self-deceivers adapt the goal to their own half-hearted efforts. It is a parallel process to a religious fatalist’s: “We are not meant to succeed.” When Ralph Nader began his campaign in the 1960’s to force the car manufacturers to change some of the death-trap designs, he was at first unsuccessful. But he did not say, “The public is too stupid, too selfish, too short-sighted, to listen to me.” Instead he changed his technique of speaking and writing to meet the various audiences, and became in fact one of the most successful propagandists of the era. The car manufacturers were forced to redesign their cars.
© Trevor Leggett