Monday, May 7, 2012

Selfhood: Truth and Authenticity

In a relatively recent post, I discussed (and rejected) the notion that there could somehow be a conflict between the Truth and happiness, at least in the sense of happiness which is psychological function or spiritual attainment.

Of course, there are people who for the sake of a sort of hedonistic delusionalism can lie to themselves and not face reality in order protect themselves from emotional vulnerability (think of someone crazy who denies for years that a loved one has died, or a narcissist who creates an entire false life story as his own inflated false ego). In these cases, real world external facticity is simply being ignored in favor of delusion, and so even if the person feels "happier," they are not actually functional (though sometimes, if the delusion is harmless, there is no particular reason to disabuse it for them).

However, the type of needless conflict I am talking about does not refer to the question of the truth of external events so much as the truth of personal meaning. In this realm, the idea that there can be any conflict between the truth and happiness is simply bad faith. Someone who says, "Yes, I would be happier if I believed there was meaning in life, it would serve as an organizing principle and motivate me to self-improvement, etc...but, I am lucidly facing the truth that there is no meaning, and so I sit here in my French cafe smoking all day in existential bleakness!" is actually, I think, betraying the true principles of the existentialism they invoke, and certainly their lucid recognition of nihilism is not brave at all if they use it as an excuse to despair or to live a pathetic cowardly life. 

If you say there is no meaning, than make meaning, dammit! If a certain construction of meaning would make you happier or more functional, then construct that meaning! What good is adopting some other idea of meaning (or lack of meaning) if it isn't as good? How can there be a conflict between the Truth and Goodness (and of what value is "truth" in itself if the truth isn't good? If it's not good, why is it desirable?) Likewise, there can be no conflict between the truth and beauty either, in the end. Finding something to be "a lovely idea" is basically what "believing" means; it means speaking and living according to an idea and its implications because of the supreme appeal of that idea and therefore being willing to "live it" into reality.

The only thing that could cause one to drive a wedge between the goodness or beauty of an idea, on the one hand, and its "truth" on the fear. Fear that somehow following the good idea will ultimately lead to something bad. To use one of the absurd/delusional examples as an analogy, the idea that I have magic powers and can fly is a lovely idea, perhaps, but if I jump of a cliff to try it, as the idea would imply, I'll actually die, and I am (rightly) unwilling to die merely to preserve a meaning as trivial as "I can fly." 

Many people do not believe Christianity, not because they aren't actually "convinced" (as if that's even a meaningful concept when discussing the realm of meanings) but rather because embracing it would mean facing death and martyrdom (at least that of death-to-self and asceticism, if not literally) and that fear is not, for them, outweighed by the appeal of the beauty of the idea itself. They may express this by saying something like, "If I knew for sure heaven was real, of course I would give up everything!" but in reality they show themselves disingenuous, as they are unwilling to live as is necessary to make the meaning of "heaven" real for them. It's not a question, then, of not being convinced the reward "exists" in some external sense, so much as being unwilling (due to fear) to try enacting the meaning in their own life, the enacting of which is actually ultimately the reward itself (it is not as if heaven is an "extrinsic" motivator attached to the good life; rather, it is simply an end intrinsic to the good life itself).

This is the paradox of even atheists respecting martyrs. "Oh," they'll say tragically, "I wish I could be as naive as them, for in their ignorance they show forth a certain romantic, child-like nobility, whereas I have eaten the apple and gained knowledge of good and of evil. Ah, but this facing the cold hard dreadful depressing truth is even truer bravery!" Of course, I would ask, if the Truth is cold and hard and dreadful and depressing, of what value is it? And if it's not of any value, if it isn't good, how can it be the Truth? Christopher Hitchens once offered a prize for anyone who could "name any moral action or ethical statement that could be made or performed by a believer but could not be made or performed by an unbeliever?" While remaining an atheist, of course, he ended up offering an answer to his own riddle in the form of Lech Wałęsa saying, in response to being asked if he was scared of reprisals for his actions against the Soviets, “I'm not frightened of anything but God or anyone but God.”

Saying "I wish I could have that child-like wonder and innocence back, but alas I've learned the truth," may be a valid statement if one is talking about external facts. There is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube (without delusion) once you learn that it was your mom giving your quarters for your baby teeth and not the tooth fairy. But when it comes to something like Meaning itself...meaning is by nature subjective. That doesn't mean I'm a relativist or don't believe in an Absolute meaning of life or the universe; I do, but God Himself is a Subject, remember (or, rather, Three). As such, acting like there is some Truth that is separate from Values, from goodness, does not even make sense. Ultimately what we see as True is what we see as Good. Acting according to the Truth means to act according to the Meaning which maximizes goodness for us. If it doesn't, it isn't the Truth in any meaningful sense.

Of course, because there is one Supreme Meaning in the universe, it is not as if we can just choose arbitrarily. We do have to reconcile ourselves to Him one way or another. But He is also the Supreme Goodness, so there should be no fear here of the Truth, in the end, being "cold" or "hard." One place we do have a large measure of choice, however, is in the meaning of our own lives.

I recently said something to a friend along the lines of "The purpose of psychoanalysis isn't to find out the 'real' causation of some trait of personality or psychological quirk. It's to help the person construct a credible narrative about the self that explains things in a way that is useful for helping them change." Here I think my idea that a useless truth isn't Truth at all becomes rather apparent. If the "real" cause for a person's disordered pattern of thought or behavior was mere arbitrary determinism in the universe, or some "butterfly effect" too subtle and chaotic in its causation to ever be truly traced...would it really be preferable for that person to believe this rather than internalizing a narrative which (while perhaps overly simplistic or not even the actual causal chain in the material sense) can actually make sense of things for them in a way that can be tapped into to inspire change? To me that seems absurd to assert; of course the latter narrative is better!

"Oh," some might object, "but that's not really the truth then." However, it is. Because the Self is nothing other than a story, a narrative. The Self is a story about itself. And we are the Author of Ourselves. As such, the only reality and truth when it comes to our self-narrative in this psychological sense (at least as regards internal causation) is the narrative we choose to believe or attribute at any given moment. It is not as if the self is some object, some concrete "real" thing which we must discover and adhere to (because who, in that sentence, is "we" if not the self itself?) No, that view of the self is mauvais foi. No, there is no reality to the Self or truth to its narrative outside the narrative we choose to be the truth about ourselves. 

And so if we adopt some narrative that is not useful, that is not happy, that is despairing, that renders us "unfixable" or unable to grow in holiness, or which is not aligned with the Supreme Meaning or other beliefs we hold...then that is not authenticity. On the contrary, it is the very height of inauthenticity to pretend that "the truth" about the Self somehow limits who we are or what we can accomplish or be. The only truth about the Self is the story about the Self (internally speaking) we choose to adopt, because there is no Self outside that very story! So we might as well adopt a good and helpful story!


Aric said...

I like this piece a lot, but what implications does this have for evangelism or "the gospel?" There are many who are perfectly contented to live with the meaning they have constructed. If anything, a Catholic meaning would be troubling, it might cause severe cognitive dissonance. So how are we to reconcile the truth about the Self in relation to the Truth, since they are interconnected?

Nominally Catholic said...

" are we to reconcile the truth about the Self in relation to the Truth, since they are interconnected?"

You reconcile truth and meaning with regards to self and God by describing them in terms of absolute and relative importance. The meaning we create is always relative (some are richer, some poorer, some smarter, some dumber), whereas the meaning flowing from the Almighty is always meaningful in an absolute sense. This is intimately tied to the first of the Ten Commandments. Some attribute absolute importance to things of relative importance, and that's where dissatisfaction or ennui in life comes from, whether rich or poor.

Please see these two links below:
Salvation, a phenomenology
Idyll, the Meaning of Life