I have a front-row seat on divisiveness in America. As the editorial page editor, every day I’m immersed in the heated and thoughtful arguments of the nation’s columnists and South Jersey letter writers on the most contentious political and social issues.
They have differing views and disagree about many things, which is good. The more perspectives on an issue, the more likely to have a good understanding of it.
But they often don’t understand each other. Sometimes they’re baffled that others don’t see what is obvious to them. This is frustrating and can lead to anger and assuming the worst about those who disagree. Emotions run high, fights break out (sometimes literally) and soon people worry that the fabric of the national community is being torn apart.
This is actually how it has been since the founding of these United States. As near as I can tell, it has been human nature since at least recorded history.
An important driver of such divisiveness was elegantly described two millennia ago by the great psychologist and philosopher (leaving the question of divinity aside for now), Jesus of Nazareth. He pointed out how easy it is for us to see a splinter in another’s eye, yet we’re blind to the stick in our own.
He wasn’t really talking about pieces of wood. He was referring to the illusions that interfere with our ability to see things as they actually are. And here’s the profound insight of this simple parable: It’s much easier to see someone else’s illusions than your own because you don’t need their illusions.
Having a touched-up view of the world and especially of ourselves is so common that it’s safe to say everyone has some illusions, maybe many. Thinking you don’t have any is merely the first self-deception. And if everyone has them, well, how much of a problem can they be? As ever, it’s a matter of degree.
The need to see one’s self a certain way, regardless of the underlying reality, can seriously limit a person’s life. Another great psychologist and one of the best minds of the 20th century, Karen Horney, developed a detailed understanding of how the compulsion to maintain a favorable self-image can play havoc with one’s character.
Nothing has helped me better understand why people are the way they are than the last two books by this German-born immigrant to America. “Our Inner Conflicts” describes the self-deceiving paths likely to be taken if people are more sociable, more aggressive or more solitary. In “Neurosis and Human Growth,” she boils the essentials down to what’s common to every case.
Horney, a practicing psychoanalyst, was perfecting a therapy that could help people needlessly trapped in self-destructive behaviors. Her understanding of how the human mind responds to its environment, though, is broadly applicable to everyone with a high degree of self-awareness in a world that seems to devalue them. Today, that’s a lot of people.
I think she came close to one more important insight about laboring under illusions about one’s self. She understood that the better (though fictitious) self-image was a necessary response to the unbearable reality of being powerless in a harsh and uncaring world (and no longer needed when maturity confers some power and a more complete view of that world).
In fact, these sorts of personality disorders are just more harmful versions of a fundamental need for illusions that comes with the human attributes of intense awareness and self-awareness. The power of our minds is a great benefit, but also a difficult challenge. Illusions are a way we can throttle that power and keep it at a bearable, constructive level.
This is why shedding an illusion is uplifting and empowering. It means we’re ready to handle being more.
It’s also why there’s more to be gained by seeing the stick in your own eye than the splinter in another’s.
Phone editorial page editor Kevin Post at 609-272-7250, or email him at email@example.com.