Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lies We Tell Ourselves

Lies have an interesting quality. Repeated often enough, lies become accepted as truth, and it must be said that our lives and our minds are filled with them. Filled with half-truths that are also half-lies, credulously accepted though unfounded rumors, filled with the lies of advertisers sowing insecurity and selling false satisfaction. But not all lies are created equal, some lies are useful, even necessary .

Our physical perception of the world is a kind of lie. Where science tells us there are swarms of swirling electrons, protons and neutrons we see a table or a dog. Our eyes lie to us by omission, registering only a narrow spectrum of all the light streaming into them. These are what we might call necessary and useful lies, simplifications of the truth that allow us to make sense of and interact with the world around us.

But many lies are not so benign. Consider the lies that most of us accept about personal success and happiness. We could sum these up with a catch-phrase from 1980's pop culture: “Greed is good.”
This is a succinct summation of economic thought in its current, mainstream variety. Economists assume that the world would work best if everyone tried to maximize their individual utility, where “utility” means, essentially, money and stuff. If everyone tries to accumulate as much wealth as they can, competing with everyone else for scarce resources, then everything will automatically work out for the best, as if guided by “an invisible hand.”

In reality, greed leads to unnatural shortages, as some people capture and hoard vast amounts of wealth, while many more are left to scratch out an existence from the ever-dwindling remains. Greed leads to ill will among people: callousness in those who are successful in their hoarding and resentment in those left out. Greed is not good, as pretty much every religion has been telling us for millennia. It's a little embarrassing that they have to tell us at all, and even more so that we so often refuse to listen.

Some lies are more subtle, like the lies we tell ourselves about our own powerlessness. We see the news filled with natural disasters and human suffering, wars, corruption, and social and environmental devastation, and we think we can do nothing, or at least not very much. We give a little bit to the Red Cross or United Way and think that we've done all we can. But this is a lie.

We live in a rich country where many of us have much more than we need, but rather than use our personal resources to improve the world, we buy an iPad and have discussions about what the government should do or what some corporation should do. We rely on those “in power” to fix things, denying that we ourselves have power. We undermine our power by squandering it on mindless indulgences and we deny having it because we are frightened of the responsibility that having it implies. We all remember what Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

We have the power, much more than we like to admit, to make the world a profoundly better place. But if we are to exercise this power we will need to re-evaluate our lives, reconsider what it is that truly leads to happiness, recognize the oft-repeated lies of our culture for what they are: lies. The truth is inevitably more complex than the lie, and this can be frightening, but we must be courageous if we are indeed concerned for the fate of our fellow humans, for our brother and sister creatures and for the planet that we all share. If we are concerned with freedom, with recognizing and reclaiming our own power, we must be relentless in exposing and rejecting lies wherever they may be, whether plastered across a billboard or hidden in the recesses of our own hearts.

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