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Monday, September 20, 2004
The Balm of Deception 
Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception.
by Daniel Goleman.

Some writers stand out to me. They might not be well-respected, or even popular, but they always have a place in my bookshelf. You could say that I'm a fan of their works, in some cases. For religion, that writer is Karen Armstrong, who ensnared me in her web with A History of God. For modern psychology, it's Daniel Goleman, who caught my attention with Emotional Intelligence

I don't know what it is that interests me so much with both writers. Perhaps it's the measured, even tones they have, but spiced with splashes of vivid color when they touch on some subjects. It's rare to hear them resort to the language of polemic — always a major turn-off for me. And whenever I read their works, I always find something new.

Vital Lies, Simple Truths Cover

In the book I'm supposed to be talking about, Goleman addresses the issue of self-deception — a prevalent, but almost-invisible pattern in our lives. The human mind, it seems, perpetually blocks out perception and the awareness of information, often to alleviate anxiety. From this simple idea, he begins to sketch out a rather enlightening, yet very disturbing portrait of the human mind.

Every human's mind, it turns out, has a… thing that works silently and tirelessly behind the scenes, just under our awareness. It blanks out stimuli, it suppresses memory and recall, and ruthlessly expunges data that worries, that causes anxiety or gets in the way of decisive action.

In most cases, it is an ally, and an invaluable one — without it we would be paralyzed, unable to work out otherwise-vexing and overwhelming problems and issues. It is, often, the root of heroism and love — a heroic man is a man who can mute out fear and doubt for just a while, enough to do what needs to be done, and a loving man believes that he will love his mate for ever and ever, even if it would be better for him, in an evolutionary standpoint, to have sex with as many females as he can (that is, cheat). But often, it can be our worst enemy.

It seems like almost every major calamity in our lives could be attributed to these gaps in awareness that we have — what Goleman calls lacunae, or holes in our awareness. He links it to the phenomenon of groupthink, a special kind of idiocy or willing blindness that can befall even the most intelligent and well-informed group. Lacunae are also present in smaller, yet equally painful disasters, like sexual abuse and alcoholism in the family. As an incest victim recalls, rather angrily:
I never actually told [my mother] what my father was doing, but my God, the laundry could have! There were bloody panties, semen-stained pajamas, soiled sheets. Everything was right there for her to see. And she chose not to.
But such methods of repression and denial are not merely the province of horrible secrets, as Goleman points out. They're everywhere — from the invisible contract married couples agree upon, that is more often than not never put into words, to our ability to block out things that we are all uncomfortable of as a society, to even the existence of the modern working day and our sense of time, which may seem natural to us now, but is merely a new innovation, barely a hundred years old, and directly against what our ancestors are used to.

Taken in this light, the actions of people and characters in modern history make some kind of sense — we are often torn from our natural state, and yet conditioned to believe that it is natural. Furthermore, we do not talk about it — we cannot.

I found this book just after I returned from the United Kingdom, after failing to complete my degree. In itself, the book offers me no comfort — the feelings I've had, as well as the tactics I and my family have used to deny what has happened to me, are natural, and even inevitable. But self-knowledge is a balm, even if it is a painful one. It's certainly a book I recommend that others read, even if it is weighty and somewhat hard to get into.

T-Boy  # 9:14 PM