Relax! This won’t be one of “Fran’s Catholic rants.” Not entirely, anyway.
Before I plunge ahead, let me say this plainly: I make no claim to expertise or authority in psychology. I’m a retired engineer. My degrees are in mathematics and physics. My achievements are in real-time software and – your opinion may vary – fiction. What follows arises from experience and hard thought. If my thinking resonates with yours, good; maybe we’ll get somewhere from it. If not, well, we can all be wrong. Sometimes, lots of us are wrong together. That’s mostly what this piece is about.
There’s a progression in the mind that we seldom talk about. It’s critically important to many aspects of human decision-making and behavior. To give you an idea just how important it is, consider this: It took me more than thirty years to confront its importance to me, and to decisions I’d made that long before. That wasn’t because it was intellectually too difficult even for a Certified Galactic Intellect to fathom. If you’re a human being, I’d bet that at some time in your life, you’ve had trouble facing it, too.
(To any pentapodal Aldebaranians or Ophiuchan gas-beings in the audience: your mental processes are beyond the scope of this tirade.)
The mind has several modes of operation. Which one is dominant at any time depends on factors that appear to be too deeply buried in the subconscious for analysis and elucidation. Moreover, there are occasions when those modes battle one another for the power to decide what should be done. It’s one of the principal sources of suffering and sorrow.
To survive, we must make decisions that are, at least on average, more beneficial than detrimental. (Notice that I didn’t write “more right than wrong.” We’ll get to why a little later.) But everyone makes some detrimental decisions, whether they negatively affect others or him alone. Good decisions yield positive returns, and a good feeling about oneself. However, there are those not-so-good decisions to reckon with as well. They yield negative feedback, and that doesn’t feel very good at all.
Negative feedback in a simple system will halt or degrade the system until the reason for it is corrected. But the human mind isn’t a simple system. One of its modes, which seeks to preserve one’s sense of self-regard, recoils from the necessity that arises from negative feedback. That necessity is summed up in a three-word sentence: perhaps the hardest of all short sentences to use: “I was wrong.”
It’s not always tremendously difficult to admit having been wrong. There are some kinds of errors that just about anyone can admit without undue stress. But there are some kinds of errors that touch upon fundamentals: the sort of misstep that involves really deep self-criticism. An admission of that kind would compel a re-examination of one’s self-regard.
And that hurts. The mode that seeks to preserve one’s self-regard fires up in protest. That can have any of several results:
- It can force the mind to deny the error;
- It can deflect the mind from consciousness of the error;
- It can produce rationalizations and excuses for the error;
- It can culminate in a re-examination of oneself.
The more serious the error in terms of damage to one’s self-regard, the less likely is that fourth response. Even a high genius can be utterly paralyzed by the need to admit a really serious mistake…especially if he must also admit that he should have known better.
But the admission is the required first step in a series:
- Admission of error;
- Analysis, whether intellectual or emotional, of the path toward the error;
Without the admission, repentance and correction will never occur.
I’ve been using relatively “unloaded” terms: “error” and “mistake,” “beneficial” and “detrimental,” et cetera. But the self-regard-conservation mode of the mind doesn’t use those terms. Indeed, it doesn’t use any “terms.” It deals in delight and sorrow, jubilation and regret. Those responses act directly on the body. Why and how are questions for the neurophysiologists.
The point is the path toward the correction of one’s mistake. It’s simple and linear. It begins with admitting the error. There’s no other way forward. The implication “should” be “obvious:”
You cannot do better.
There’s a spot of interior prognostication involved in the path that begins with an admission of error. The mind foresees what must follow the admission. It “pre-experiences” the pain, guilt, and shame that would accompany repentance. Sometimes the foretaste of those things is worse than the eventual reality.
That is the power of the self-regard-conservation mode of the human mind: its ability to compel that foretaste, to amplify it through mechanisms buried deeply within the subconscious, and thus to invoke one of the evasive tactics I listed earlier. It’s a staggering, truly awesome force, one that deserves much more consideration than it’s received to date. But in a supreme irony, they who style themselves students of the mind and experts in understanding its operation haven’t even scratched the surface.
You know who has? Priests. Ministers. Rabbis. People whose special field is sin.
Give that a moment’s thought before continuing on.
If you’re bright enough to comprehend the drivel posted here, it’s unlikely that I’ve told you anything you didn’t already know. The great failing of the human race isn’t that we “don’t know any better.” It’s that all too often, even when we know better, we do worse.
Believe it or not, this reflection was stimulated by Dave’s piece below. I understand his lack of sympathy for American Jews, who’ve consistently voted Leftward since World War II, and so may fairly be said to have collaborated in bringing about the situation that faces them today. But note that they’re not the only group of which such a criticism can be made. Think of all the peaceniks who’ve consistently voted Leftward. Yet Democrat administrations embroiled the U.S. in the two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Only with the rise of the Bush dynasty have we seen major military expeditions undertaken by Republicans.
We all have problems admitting to our mistakes. The more self-critical they force us to be, the more reluctant we are to admit them. Neither are we eager to embrace repentance and the path of correction. It’s been said that Lyndon Johnson, who did more to expand and intensify the Vietnam War than any other politician of his time, lamented to some of his inner circle that he had no idea how to get out of what he’d wrought. Yet a less well liked president with little support in Congress, Richard Nixon, managed it despite intense opposition from the Democrats and the media. Johnson, a man of gigantic self-regard, simply didn’t want to admit he’d made a mistake of that magnitude.
I’ve known several people who said openly that they’d always vote Democrat no matter what. It’s a strange position to take. No matter what? Yet they were sincere. I have little doubt they’ve done exactly as they said they would. Their reasons were various; ultimately, they don’t matter.
And now that the Republicans, except for Donald Trump and a handful of others, have turned into unprincipled parasites who seek only to preserve their places at the government feeding-trough, what can anyone who retains a belief in the efficacy of politics say or do? Given the hammerlock the major parties have on the electoral system, there’s no point in jumping to one of the minor parties. Given the power of the entrenched federal bureaucracy, there would be no point even if a large majority of the nation were to vote for any minor party, real or notional.
Politics is a false trail that has lured us astray. No more than a false trail through the forest can it be “fixed.” Quoth H. L. Mencken:
Politics, as hopeful men practice it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance. The American colonists, when they got rid of the Potsdam tyrant, believed fondly that they were getting rid of oppressive taxes forever and setting up complete liberty. They found almost instantly that taxes were higher than ever, and before many years they were writhing under the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Look not to politics for rescue. We were wrong to trust in politics, politicians, and leader figures. They were chimeras, one and all. There was only one agency capable of improving anything we cared about: ourselves, each individual one of us, in full, frank, often embarrassing consciousness of his own priorities, capabilities, limitations…and sins. Trusting politics and politicians to do for us what we ought to have done for ourselves was perhaps the worst of our sins.
Admitting your sins, even if only to yourself, must precede repentance, correction…and absolution.