Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than any one. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill—he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness–Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
So speaks Zosima, the clear-eyed realist, lover of life, Russian Orthodox Elder, and moral center of Dostoevsky’s last novel, to Fyodor Pavlovitch, the drunken, clownish, deceitful patriarch of the Karamazov family. Of course, Zosima’s advice falls on deaf, or at the very least, unreceptive ears, as such advice usually does. (I think, generally, advice like this is most heeded only where it’s least needed.)
I do believe that there are times when it’s permissible to lie to others without doing injury to one’s soul: In response to the “does this dress make my ass look fat?” sorts of questions, or perhaps a small lie that allows a person almost at the end of his life to pass along more peacefully than he otherwise might. I could be wrong in that belief, but it’s my own.
I cannot think of a single good, or justifiable, reason to lie to myself though. Or a single good, or justifiable, outcome that comes from my having deceived myself in such a way. In general, I think Zosima’s analysis of the downward spiral that starts when one set one’s feet on the path of self-delusion pretty much nails the dangers of such a course. I particularly like the way he links one’s loss of self-respect with an inability to relate to, and love, others. I’ve seen that. And Zosima’s analysis probably correlates with why the “12-Step” programs for addiction treatment are so successful. Without exception, and regardless (or irregardless as the case may be) of the type of addiction being addressed, they start with a metaphorical mirror–and a brutally honest self-assessment, (in most cases) a commitment to accept Divine guidance, a ruthless self-inventory of one’s moral failings, a public admission of one’s wrongs, and a rendering of apologies and amends to all those we’ve hurt. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. For a lifetime, one day at a time.
Still, and all, on days when life is especially hard, I sometimes wonder: Are there times that it’s permissible or desirable to lie to oneself, and when such a lie doesn’t corrupt the person or the soul?