I was watching an episode in the series “Drugs, Inc.” in which an addict was asked whether or not they wanted to stop their addiction. The person replied, “Do I want to quit? No… but I want to manage the habit.” This statement struck me as an exercise in self-delusion since a drug addiction cannot be “managed” by the user; rather, the habit manages the user!
It is not only drug addicts, however, who indulge in self-delusion; many of us “good” people also pull the wool over our own eyes when we assess ourselves. We can be tempted to think that just because we have not murdered anyone that we are therefore “good”; this is not necessarily so since our supposed “goodness” may have simply been a lack of opportunity to indulge in real badness. In the same way, our being less selfish than some others is not the same thing as being selfless, just as in saying that we are not as fat as we could be is not the same thing as being thin!
We sometimes settle for being “less bad” than to embrace the struggle to become better simply because the struggle is… well, a struggle, and we don’t want to be inconvenienced. If we never strive to become better than we are right now then we will never actually be “good” since a crucial characteristic of goodness is the desire to become better. So how to begin? Searching to see instances of our strange attraction to selfishness will generate more instances of seeing that selfishness in action, which will generate yet more awareness. If we embrace the reality that there is no end to all of who we can become, then this growing awareness will actually generate an excitement within us to see more, to know more about ourselves, and to become more, to become better!
We… all of us… have a hard time seeing ourselves as we really are. I once had a brother in the monastery come up to me and, out of the blue, say, “Do you know that your nose is crooked?” My first internal reaction was, “Where the hell did THAT come from?!” But then my many years of monastic discipline kicked in and I knew that whatever reality was presenting me with I had an obligation to look at it. So I went into the bathroom, and was stunned to see that he was right, that my nose ever so slightly hooks to the right! For all of the years that I have seen myself in the mirror, I never saw myself as I actually am! Immediately upon that realization came the question: What else about myself don’t I know?
Ever since that day I have kept that incident in the forefront of my mind when I automatically reach to dismiss something. And at moments when I go to congratulate myself on not being so bad as someone else, the thought now automatically comes to mind: But are you as good as you can still become?