A hungry fox saw some fine grapes hanging from a vine along a high trellis. He tried his hardest to reach the grapes by jumping as high as he could. But they remained out of reach. The fox, tired and still very much hungry, gave up and walked away with an air of dignity.
Pouting sideways, as if unconcerned, the fox remarked, “I thought those grapes were ripe but I am sure they are sour.”
– Aesop, “The fox and the grapes” (Paraphrased)
This simple story is more than just a bedside parable. The main message has little to do with the fox failing to get a hold of the grapes but rather how he reacts to his failure – by lying to himself.
The fox’s dismissive statement allows him to maintain his pride with just a dash of self-deception. In doing so, he comes out the victor. We can criticise the fox for his dishonesty, but we can also celebrate his positive self-image.
In situations that are stressful, we do anything – often with little awareness – to maintain the positive self-image we wish to possess and share with others. The fox is therefore not exactly a fictional character but a symbolic vessel of how all of us react to preserve our ego and self-worth.
When our self-worth is threatened, we respond defensively or we go all out on the offensive. We will lie or twist our perceptions of facts in order to work around conflicting truths that harm our identity.
When we perform inadequately for the exams, we sometimes find it easier to accept the results if we console ourselves that the paper was exceedingly hard, or that in our class there were plenty who performed worse. Or that maybe, at the end of it, grades were not that important. Or maybe luck wasn’t on your side.
Falling out of love also brings out this self-defense mechanism of delusion. We will either convince ourselves (or through the efforts of our friends) that we were the better person.Or maybe neither the time nor situation was right. Perhaps it was never meant to be, and feelings will eventually fade. Or one can find someone better.
There’s of course some kernels of truth to be found, but we are always apt to distort facts with a high degree of bias in making us feel better. It makes it easier to forget a significant person, terrible grades or aimlessness in life. It’s a necessary but costly mechanism.
Self-deception is also noticeably prevalent in religion. Cults that prohepsise the end of the world (of which there are many) often claim that the strength of their faith saved the world when their doomsday claims fail to materialise – admitting you were wrong just grounds your entire belief system into dust.
Even when led to logically concluding the problems of the prevalence of evil, or the whimsically masochistic behaviour of Yahweh wiping out earth’s population with a flood (hence Noah’s ark) or the absurdities of the Koran where Allah shows his benevolence by turning Jews into apes, religious people deploy self-deception as a defense against logical questioning.
You may be decried as an atheist who knows nothing of spirituality, dismissed as being the devil in disguise or someone who cannot understand God’s grand scheme. When Japanese Shinto was under criticism for being illogical, the scholars defended their faith as “because it’s illogical, that’s why it’s the work of the divine. Mortals cannot understand God’s words”.
Self-deception goes a long way, and chances are, all of us have built our lives on it. We may not have picked the right person, but we want to believe we have. Our religion may be logically incoherent, but we need faith for our lives to make sense so we give this inconsistency a free pass.
Perhaps it’s the only way to live in this world. By building upon a web of lies, we find life more meaningful. We can still pretend we are worth something. To move forward and not dwell on the past (a common motivation phrase) is to an extent, a healthy dose of self-deception.
Even those at the very peak of their career eventually settle to believe they are doing something grand. Self-deception becomes a convenient tool in dealing with morally questionable choices. “It’s for the masses!”, “Everyone does it so we have to” or “It’s business – that’s all.”
Our self-deceptions conveniently simplify life for us. It’s necessary, and I acknowledge that because I probably had to bear a great deal of it myself too. Self-deception can take us on a grand ride, and may lead to novel, overwhelming experiences. But it’s dangerous when self-deception is done too often without our conscious mind at the driver’s seat.
Sometimes the truth is as it is: sometimes a person is truly irreplaceable; sometimes certain experiences, especially those we develop strong emotions for the first time, simply cannot be forgotten; sometimes, we are just that incapable; sometimes, our beliefs don’t hold up at all; sometimes a high powered career really wasn’t worth it.
Sometimes, we just need to admit it.
So have you thought (HYTA) about your own self-deceptions?