The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 5:31:43

Fake wisdom

Katie van Schaijik, Jul 10, 2013

A facebook friend has linked a list: 15 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy.  It's not my kind of list. It strikes me as a typical instance of cheap pop-psychology bromides masquerading as wisdom. It's not that there's no truth in it at all; it's that much of what's said is reductive, ambiguous and superficial. It glosses over the real problems it pretends to resolve.

Example: The first thing the reader is urged to give up is "your need to always be right."  Well, okay. No one should "need" to "always be right."  But it's not very helpful in the concrete, is it?  Take a case in which I am convinced I am right.  You accuse me of lying and I deny it.  Is my denial to be interpreted as coming from a pathological need to always be right? 

Is it egotistical for me to insist that I didn't lie? Should I, say, drop the claim that abortion is objectively evil, given that my friend doesn't agree?  Should I "let go" of the point out of "kindness" to her?  

Is the author suggesting that we abandon our sense of right for the sake of unity?  Is she suggesting that it doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong in a given case?  She seems to be. At any rate, she says nothing to guard against that interpretation. 

She writes (very typically of the self-help gurus of the age) as if there no such thing as objective reality involved in inter-personal disputes. It is only two clashing subjectivities. The way to happiness, then, is to be kind and non-judgmental. Just stop clashing. Insistence on truth and right is arrogant and divisive.

In reality, though, persons commune with one another through the medium of truth. To abandon truth for the sake of friendship, then, is to abandon the only conditions in which real communion can come about.

Of course there are cases of people who are so crippled by an inability to admit fault that they render themselves incapable of real relationships.  But the problem there is the inability to admit fault, not an insistence on right. 

Real wisdom teaches us to take ourselves less seriously and truth more seriously. We should be more interested in truthincluding perhaps very painful truths about ourselvesthan we are in saving face or coming out on top of a dispute.  We should learn to distinguish between our opinions and objective reality. We should humbly remind ourselves that what we see may be incomplete.  We should be open to the truth another person may be mediating to us, and to the emotional subtext in a given dispute.  

But we should take care never to suggest that truth claims as such are arrogant, or that there is an opposition between believing we're right about something and being kind, or that it's better to deny the truth we see than to be in conflict with another person.  All that is false.

The rest of the list isn't much better.  Here's item number 7: Give up the luxury of criticism. "Give up your need to criticize things, events or people that are different than you."

So, is criticism a luxury, then? If I criticize, am I being self-indulgent? Is it always better not to criticize?  Is there no such thing as a duty to criticize? Must criticism spring from an ego-centric rejection of difference, or might it not be a self-forgetting concern with objective reality? Can not my criticism (of an internet post, say) have nothing to do with my own prejudices and insecurities and everything to do with my concern for truth, and for others?

Why not say instead something like, "Remove the log in your own eye before you take out the speck in your brother's"?

I can understand why unbelievers would find a list like this appealing. Christians, though, should recognize it for the pseudo-wisdom it is.