Let's imagine that we are sitting across from the French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre at one of his favorite Parisian bistros, Le Brasserie Balzar (dogs allowed). Sartre's teasing apart the web of self-deception has both frightened and also liberated countless students in my philosophical travels. He displays this universal human tendency to lie to ourselves, what he terms "bad faith" (mauvaise foi), in all its sordid colors. The reward of an honest look at self-deception is awareness, and through becoming intimate with this nemesis we find tools to combat it. Are you ready to look in the mirror? Want to level with yourself?
Self-deception is "an immediate, permanent threat to every project of the human being," he reads from his book Being and Nothingness. Putting his heavy tome away, Sartre sinks his teeth into what he hopes will be a long lunch and lifelong conversation.
Here he goes.... All of us fall somewhat into the snare of self-deception, even if but briefly and knowingly. The incredible thing about the deceitful process is that not only are you are telling a lie but the person to whom you are lying is yourself. Are human beings peculiar or what?! "I have never had a love who was worthy of me." "I can write a great novel, but I simply do not have the time." "No one has given me a job commensurate with my abilities." Yes, these are big fibs, but I choose to believe them. It suits me just fine to duck from responsibility and keep myself hidden. Leave me alone. I am rearranging reality.
Watch as the web of dishonesty becomes more and more intricate. Sartre nudges each of us. How many of you concoct fanciful futures in which you spend most of your time? Not only do you make up for perceived shortcomings, but you also create an imagined life and decide to make your home in this alternative world. "I'm going to buy a place at the beach and move next year." It is irrelevant that you are unemployed. "I'm going to attend graduate school and get an apartment in Boston." Who cares that you are struggling as an undisciplined second-year student and are on financial aid? "I will be ending this deadening relationship and finally open that restaurant." Why bring up that I am financially dependent and have never mentioned my unhappiness to my partner?
Now with appetites long gone, our French host delivers the final piece of very bad news. While at first you are aware of keeping bad faith with yourself, knowing full well that it's not true that you never made a mistake at work or do not have a temper, eventually this first instinct to lie to absolve yourself from any personal responsibility becomes an unconscious pattern. You no longer catch yourself and correct the error; it is a way of life. Integrity and relationship no longer present themselves as possibilities. There is no authentic you. "You" are a tangle of misdirection.
Sartre is done with us; now we must decide what to do. The ongoing challenge is clear. Do I want to rid myself of this addiction to homespun lying? In what harmful ways have I succumbed to self-deception? Do I want to paint my self-portrait in true colors? Can I learn to know myself and be comfortable with my discoveries, making changes when called for? Can I belong to myself? Do I agree with Sartre that there are no alibis for the way I live my life?
And, really, in the long run won't it be easier to live without excuses? Caribbean poet Derek Walcott invites us to feast on our lives in "Love After Love." Doesn't that sound delicious?