Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trousers and Self-Deception

There is a judge suing a dry cleaner over a lost pair of pants. I'm sure you've heard about his $54 million suit against the dry cleaners. A blogger was interviewed on Olberman's show and MSN put up the video of the interview. He explained that the aggrieved party actually got emotional recounting his turmoil over the past two years, going so far as to ask for a recess whereupon he left the room with tears in his eyes.

Obviously, the emotions this man is feeling about his lost pants are real. But what is their root cause? I'm rereading C. Terry Warner's book Bonds That Make Us Free. It is one of those seminal works for me that changed the way I view the world and myself.

Warner teaches us that a lot of the feelings of anger and resentment that we have are evidence that we've deceived ourselves and are treating others inhumanely. As I listened to the blogger talk about watching this angry man in court talking about his pants, I couldn't help but conclude that he is trapped in negative emotions that he has unwittingly caused himself.

Early in the book (p. 23), Warner explains self-justifying stories.

We cannot betray ourselves without setting in motion all manner of emotional trouble. This is demonstrated by the experience of a businessman named Marty, in his early thirties, who told the following story:

The other night about 2:00 A.M. I awoke to hear the baby crying. At that moment I had a fleeting feeling, a feeling that if I got up quickly I might be able to see what was wrong before Carolyn would be awakened. It was a feeling that this was something I really ought to do. But I didn't get up to check on the baby.
The matter did not end there. Marty didn't quickly forget about this small episode. He couldn't have simply forgotten about it. Here he was, a man expecting himself to get up, thinking that his wife would benefit from his doing so, and knowing in his heart that it was the right thing for him to do. And yet not doing it. He had to deal with this dishonorable situation somehow. But how? How could someone like Marty get away with not doing what he knew he should do?

The answer to this question is very important to understand. Somehow, Marty had to minimize the obligation he was placing upon himself, or in some other way make it seem right not to do what he felt summoned to do. He had to find some other way to rationalize his self-betrayal.

Marty continued his story:
It bugged me that Carolyn wasn't waking up. I kept thinking it was her job to take care of the baby. She has her work and I have mine, and mine is hard. It starts early in the morning. She can sleep in. On top of that, I never know how to handle the baby anyway.

I wondered if Carolyn was lying there waiting for me to get up. Why did I have to feel so guilty that I couldn't sleep? The only think I wanted was to get to work fresh enough to do a good job. What was selfish about that?
From the instant he decided not to get up, Marty began to make it seem as if what he was doing wasn't his fault. ...He noticed irritating or difficult elements of his circumstances, such as Carolyn's failure to wake up. Maybe she was only pretending to be asleep, he thought, waiting for him to get up and take care of the problem. Such matters hadn't even crossed his mind before the self-betrayal. But now he suddenly could think of nothing else. He remembered things he would otherwise have forgotten entirely, such as Carolyn's not having changed the baby just before putting her to bed.

So here is the mental situation he created for himself: Just seconds before, as he had awakened to his infant daughter's crying, he had focused on the baby's need and , if only fleetingly, on the possibility of saving Carolyn from the inconvenience of having to get up. But now he focused on himself.
The feelings of frustration and anger that we feel are real, that's for sure. The surprise is that we are the cause of those feelings. The lie is that others are forcing us to feel that way. There are times when people abuse us, it is true. But we heap injury upon ourselves when we react in an accusing way. We only hurt ourselves more by hating!

I suspect the man suing over pants to the tune of $54 million is "stuck" in negative feelings and he probably doesn't know how to escape. If you talk to him, mention this book, would you?


Scott Hinrichs said...

I have fallen into this trap myself from time to time. And sometimes I even know what I am doing when I do it, but I try to fool myself into thinking that this course of action will get me what I want.

I have a friend that has seriously harmed his eternal prospects by falling prey to this kind of prideful self deception.

Kojo said...

The other explanation being that the guy is super-litigious and crafty. Which the details of the suit would seem to support.

Bradley Ross said...

Reach, the book is packed with stories like this one. This happened to be one that hit me the hardest since it is a trap I've fallen into in a similar situation.

Kojo, you're probably right. This principle of self-deception and self-betrayal can certainly exacerbate problems we already have.

Tom Williams said...

I'm reminded of a story about a man who had a flat tire on a country road late at night. He had a jack but no jack handle. He decided to walk to a farm house he could see in the distance and ask to borrow a jack handle. As he got closer he noted that there were no lights on. He began to think -- I'll probably wake the farmer if I knock on his door. As he continued to walk the thought -- the farmer might be very angry. Going up the drive he thought -- he'll probably yell at me and refuse to help. When he finally reached the house he knocked on the door. The upstairs window opened and the farmer stuck out his head and asked -- May I help you? The man shook his fist at the farmer and yelled -- You can just keep your damn jack handle! Then he stormed off.