Thinking Honestly About Yourself

I’m very big these days on the importance of self understanding. Inner peace is made more possible by striving to be honest with yourself.

I am convinced that distortions in our thinking about ourselves is what leads to personal discomfort with ourselves.

I will use my own experience as an example.

Feeling Superior

When I first became very serious about my religious commitment, one of the aspects of deep religious commitment that appealed to me was the promise given me by my religion that if I did commit, I would be “special.” In fact, I would be better than those who did not commit or believe.

I loved feeling superior to non-believers. It seemed to relieve me of my feelings of inadequacy.

Competition starts early in American culture. And I competed fully. Victories are fun, defeats are hard. The defeats were especially hard for me when I fell short of keeping up with peers whom I admired.

In religion, you can cover over that hurt by feeling superior to these people. I did it by saying I was better than these folks, because “I had the Truth and they did not. I am happy because I have the Truth. No matter what they have accomplished they are not happy, because they do not have the Truth.”

That kind of reasoning worked- for a while.

Eventually, these people come back and haunt you. In real life they probably can’t even hardly remember you, nevertheless, they pop up in your dreams. They also pop up in the form of other people who achieve at a high level.

It’s better to admit that there are those who achieve at a very high level. It’s best to give them credit and move on. It’s a mistake to cover over envy by feeling superior because you believe in a particular god and they do not.

That’s where I didn’t get religion right, did I?

If you are insecure, and you have a problem with envy, I would strongly recommend that religion not be used to make you feel secure. I think it just might reinforce your insecurity after a time. This is especially true if you use religion to distinguish yourself and to discount others.

I can only hope that I am the only person in history that used religion in this fashion. I doubt it though.

Obsession With Order

Here’s another part of my religious commitment that I didn’t get right.

After my first year of college, I felt a lack of order in my life.

Not that I didn’t have it before. Being in athletics and theater arts demanded lots of discipline.

But the order I needed was emotional order, a feeling that I was a part of something bigger than myself. Religion supplied that sense of order. I’ve had to admit to myself that I have a conservative streak running through my personality. I like order in my life. I need to feel like I’m in control of things. But sometimes that need for order can spill over and turn into rigidity. Following the rules becomes an end unto itself.

When you think you have the rules right, you spend productive time defending rules, instead of exercising mental flexibility. I became a rule keeper.

I really went wrong on this one.

I once heard one of my religious leaders make a contrarian remark: “You want boys to break rules, make rules.”

I wish I would have said that. I told this leader how much I admired what he said. He said he couldn’t remember saying it, much less believing it. So, I’m claiming it as my own.

I like order, but I don’t like rigidity. I’ve had to ease up on my obsession for order. I’ve had to recognize that a demand for too much order turned me toward manipulation. All that was important, was keeping the rule.

I have had to adjust my thinking. In my opinion, there should be a safe harbor in life where people can work out how they think and feel about issues without fear of retribution. Organized religion is in need of helping to create such an environment. And I should actively support such efforts. That’s where my thinking should be. Even writing this thought gives me a sense of comfort.

Personal Responsibility

In my quest for greater honesty with myself, I am willing to take full responsibility for my flaws: in the above cases, envy and rigidity.

Blaming an organization for my personal interpretations of its objectives is, to my way of thinking, weak kneed. I am fully responsible. I must not only correct my mistakes in thinking, but I must not think that there is some rational explanation for blaming my thinking on the environment I was exposed to.

For example, I was at a Mormon History Association Conference 12 years ago in Denmark. I found myself in a private conversation with an American sociologist. The conversation centered around how a young Mormon in Germany used supplies from his congregation to print anti-Nazi literature during World War II.

I commented on the courage of the young man, and remarked how the vast number of Germans rationalized their acceptance of Adolfo Hitler. The sociologist criticized my thinking on the basis that I did not understand the conditions Germans were living under at the time.

I was taken aback by the sociologist’s comment. I didn’t know exactly how to respond, partly because his comment had merit. I was grasping for an adequate response when I said, “In the end, each person must be responsible for their own thinking. That’s why I admire the Mormon kid for doing what he did.”

The conversation wound down to a growl.

I’ve often thought back on that conversation, and have concluded we were both correct. Indeed, most people are subject to the influences of their environment as they form their thoughts. But, on the other hand, we are responsible for our thoughts irrespective of our environment.

It is difficult to throw off the powerful influence of your environment. But it is possible, and when it is done, even in small ways, I think a measure of personal greatness is achieved, to say nothing of the personal peace it brings.

That is why I am striving to be as honest as I possibly can about my own thinking. And this is especially the case when it comes to my own thinking about myself. I want no distortions, no rationalizations, no excuses, and no cover- ups.

It’s hard, but there are “no easy battles for great victories” in this life.