Brutal Honesty in the Age of Being Real

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of being real, it was the age of delusional thinking, it was the epoch of honesty, it was the epoch of lies, it was the season of transparency, it was the season of delusions, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were going to achieve, what we had already achieved, what we would never achieve – in short, it was a period of time that needed to exist to rectify a period that may never have existed to the superlative degree of comparison that some of its noisiest authorities defined for the era.

As that paraphrase of Charles Dickens’ epic intro to A Tale of Two Cities suggests, reality TV did not the divide American culture in the manner some purported it would in the age of being real. The doyens and doyennes of our culture asked if reality TV was art imitating life, or if it was reflecting it? Others suggested reality TV represented such a small sample of the culture that the shows’ producers projected it out into the society as a measure of realness that wasn’t real to the superlative degree they portrayed? Others wondered if the culture used reality TV for what it was and dispensed of it in manner similar to the way a body puts out byproducts it can’t use?  Some people I knew, very real and intelligent people, acknowledged that while reality TV focused on a sample of a society none of us knew that didn’t mean it wasn’t real.

"Lars and The Real Girl"

“Lars and The Real Girl”

How many times in one episode did an actor say, “Hey, I’m just being real with ya” to assuage the guilt they might otherwise have while insulting another person? How many times did these show participants gain a certain degree of realness on the back of another? How many times was being real used as a confrontational device to belittle those who were less real, until the real proponent managed to gain some real definition on them?

Being real, in such instances, was nothing more than a cudgel used to diminish a person who wasn’t like the speaker. They used this device to make the unreal more like the real, and the viewer at home was supposed to accept all that as real thinking, if they ever hoped to gain real stature in the real world. Most of us now reflect back on the being real era, and see it as an intellectually dishonest era, designed to promote the position of the proselytizing speakers. 

Those of us who thought the age of being real was anything but, couldn’t deny the influence it had on the culture in general, and our friends and family. Otherwise kind and polite individuals who wouldn’t say an unkind word about anyone yesterday, started lobbing verbal grenades at us. “Hey,” we would say. 

“I’m just being real with ya,” they would respond. For word watchers in search of colloquialisms, it was mandatory for real people to use the less formal incarnation of the word you as a literary device to gain familiarity with the subject of their insults.   

“Why did you say that? That was not very nice.”

“We can do that now, in this era of being real.”

No one said that latter line, of course, but that was the import of the discussion. It didn’t happen in a day, and it didn’t happen this way, but friends and family felt they could say anything they wanted in this era, and they didn’t need to bother being conscientious, if they were just being real with ya. 

Those of us who experienced this era and studied it for what it was, learned it was based on the false premise that one could be real with ya without undergoing any substantive reflection of their own. Even those who may have watched a total of one hour of the more sophomoric shows of reality TV, could not escape its influence.

We thought the era of white lies were over. Even if being real had nothing more than a conjugal relationship with brutal honesty, and some of us used the nuggets of that message to put more brutal honesty in our presentation, regardless if anyone thought we were being real or not. In any repeated message of this type, there is a personal takeaway for some. Most of us didn’t believe the real characters in reality shows were being real, in other words, but the presentation affected us nonetheless. We changed our presentation to one that could be called brutal honesty, in regards to how we thought we should be perceived, and we encountered a number of surprising reactions.

The most surprising reaction we received was no reaction. We would detail our weaknesses for our audience and our trials and tribulations, and they would not say anything. We would finish our testimonial, and if someone didn’t say something to change the subject, the lunchroom table would go through a seven-second lull. Our audience presumably took it in stride, because they thought they were as honest with themselves as we purported to be. They lived with the idea that they were so honest that most people couldn’t handle their special brand of honesty. It didn’t dawn on them, however, that that interpretation of brutal honesty was limited to assessing others. Very few have the wherewithal to evaluate themselves honestly, and their particular brand of being real incorporated many of the elements the dictionary uses to define the word delusional. Those who attempt to help them be more real learn that it’s pointless, because the subject will attempt to be more real than you, with you, until the discussion devolves to something equivalent to the type of gunfight banter Hollywood writes into scripts to provide a tense setting for paragraphs of exposition.   

Those who have never made a concerted effort to be honest about themselves, might expect that being harshly critical of one’s self to be somewhat influential. The expectation I had was that others might “raise their game” in this regard, to be more honest. They didn’t, because, again, real people already think they are brutally honest.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction to displaying brutal honesty, in the age of being real, was that our friends began to think less of us. In any other era, it might make sense to consider a person who provides us a laundry list of weaknesses a weak person. In the era of being real, we might fall prey to the belief that our friends and family might consider such brutal honesty refreshing, and that they might consider that moment the perfect time to be just as honest in return. No such luck. What often happens is that they join in on the discussion and add other weaknesses that the brutally honest person neglected to include.  

“How do you think you’d do in jail?” A Delusional Person asks Frank.

“Not well,” Frank replies with refreshing, brutal honesty.

When Frank provides a laundry list for why he probably wouldn’t do well in jail, the Delusional Person might laugh, because being this honest can be humorous when the recipient is allowed to bathe in the weaknesses of its purveyor. The Delusional Person will often agree with Frank’s frank assessment of himself, but they won’t assess themselves by the same measure.

“How do you think you would do?” Frank returns.

“I think I’d do all right,” the Delusional Person replies.

Even in the age of being real, most people fell prey to the idealized images they have of themselves. One of the more effective measures weight loss programs will employ are progress charting photos. They ask their clients to do this, because we can look in the mirror every day and fail to see our progress or regressions. We need a somewhat distant perspective to truly evaluate ourselves, and the same holds true with conversational scenarios such these.     

Most of us live with idealized images of ourselves, as if they happened yesterday for the rest of our lives. This particular Delusional Person was a championship-level wrestler in his teenage years. While on the wrestling team, he endured exhaustive workouts, and exercised levels of self-discipline, that most non-athletes will never know. This resulted in The Delusional Person being a finely crafted specimen who at that time may, indeed, have been capable of handling the hand-to-hand combat situations reported to occur within the confines of a cell block. When he answered Frank’s question, the Delusional Person remembered himself as finely tuned wrestler who won championships. The idea that lifted a weight or sprinted in fifteen years didn’t enter into his equation. A more brutally honest assessment of his stay in prison should have been, “I don’t know how I would so in jail, but I suspect that all of the years I’ve spent sitting behind a computer, and avoiding physical activity, would be exposed early on.”

We all picture ourselves in peak physical condition when we listen to others speak about how they have let themselves go. We laugh when others joke about those who have gained weight, conveniently forgetting that we just graduated to a thirty-six inch waist pair of pants last week. We’ll do this when we speak about the people we grew up with who “now look so old”, even though we’re now using hair-dye, wrinkle cream, and supplements to fight the aging process. We aren’t lying when we do this either, we’re projecting an idyllic image of ourselves into these scenarios that used to be able to lay out an entire prison yard when we were called upon to do so … in the movies.

Another surprising, and somewhat depressing, reaction I encountered was a kind, polite person who had no interest in being real, adding brutal honesty to my brutally honest presentation. 

“Are you sure that you’re capable of that?” she asked after I informed her that I threw my hat in the ring for a promotion that had everyone abuzz. The surprising element of this question was not that she asked it, for it could be said that she was looking out for me in her own way, but that she never asked that question of any of our other co-workers. With them, she expressed in what we could call a Hallmark card-style response to their desire to advance within the company. “Good luck!” she would say to them, or “I know you can do it.” She may have said those words to be polite, but she wasn’t polite with me. 

She asked me to reconsider whether I might be qualified. I told her that I had as many, if not more, qualifications than some of the others who applied for it. I assumed her question was borne of jealousy, but I didn’t say that. After processing her warning, I acknowledged that she was kind person, and I realized that her concerns were simple reactions to my presentations of brutal honesty. She didn’t want me to get hurt by the realities of my limits, limits that I had expressed in the course of being honest about my vulnerabilities, and she was just reacting to what I told her over the years.

Yet, people like my sweet, polite friend can inadvertently assist those striving for brutal honesty into a depressing state of their reality. The honest assessor realizes, about halfway down the spiral, that they’re doing this to themselves, and that they’re becoming too honest. Their friends aren’t helping, but their friends are just reacting to what they’ve heard us say, and they’re regurgitating our harsh and brutal opinions of us to us. Our friends are, in fact, greasing the skids to a form of depression. An honest assessor realizes, about halfway down this spiral, that they’ve become so realistic in their assessments that they’ve become brutally realistic.

We might start avoiding attempts to advance ourselves, because we’ve become so realistic in our abilities that we’re now asking ourselves so many brutally honest questions that we’re afraid to try and advance. As a result of such thorough examination, we’ve also become so realistic that we don’t think it’s realistic for any honest assessor to succeed. These could be called minor setbacks in the grand scheme of becoming more honest with one’s self, until we begin to see the Delusional People around us –some with half of our talent– begin to succeed beyond us. These Delusional People may even know that they’re lying to themselves, on some level, but they’re harmless little, white lies that everyone tells themselves in the quest for advancement, and if you can get all of them to add up just right, they may become a reality that no one can deny.

When the company selected Molly for this promotion, the confusion it created was almost painful. It wasn’t Armageddon, and no one was harmed by the company’s decision, but the aftermath of this tragedy left a proverbial wasteland of confusion. Those who devoted a large portion of their lives to this company felt that it could only be outweighed by familial or personal tragedies. The world moves on after political disasters, and religious hypocrisies can be overcome through personal devotion, but a seismic disaster on par with a person of Molly’s character, and work ethic, landing a top gig in their company can lead to reverberations that are felt throughout a person’s life. The company is where most people live most often. It’s a better indicator of how they’re living, as it’s the place where most people devote most of their resources. When matters in the workplace take a divergent path, different from all of the scenarios workers list in their head, it can lead to a company wide crisis.

“Part of an interview involves salesmanship,” those in the know tell the employees gathered in a team meeting, and that assessment was to remain within those closed doors, as off the record comments. This assessment was a “wink and a nod” attempt to assuage the confusion building around what many considered an absolute travesty. 

Those who have been in similar situations know the term “new reality”, as it becomes the theme of the many presentations that follow. If those in the know do comment on such a situation, they will say something along the lines of “You should be happy for Molly”. This leaves the suggestion that most of the confused, are confused about her promotion as a result of personal animus.

“We wouldn’t have a problem if Marsha, Kelly, or Dan received this promotion,” one person argued to reflect the general sentiment of the aggrieved, “but if Molly has any moral fiber, or conscience, she won’t be able to sleep at night.” No one cares. Molly has scoreboard. It’s the new reality. Deal with it. 

Amid the personal and professional confusion, one honest assessor, from the out of the loop sector, stepped forth and professed the harsh reality of the situation: “Molly simply fed into the leadership mystique of her superiors better than us.

“When we were concerned themselves with learning the inner machinations of the company’s system in a proficient manner they hoped might impress their superiors,“ the honest assessor added, “Molly was purchasing gift baskets for her bosses on boss day. When others were out volunteering for special projects to pad their resumé, and working untold amounts of overtime to put a smile on their bosses’ faces, Molly was at the bosses’ lunch tables laughing at their jokes, and when all of the applicants were drilling the interviewer with the bullet points of their resumé, Molly was feeding into whatever mystique they wanted to gain in that particular setting. This was Molly’s primary skill set.“

It was a bow atop the corporate basket of lies given to bosses, on boss day, in the age of being real. In the age of being real, employees began to demand more recognition for their accomplishments, and management responded, but in the end the employees realized that it was all part of a scripted, choreographed, and edited production designed to pacify their audience by mentioning their name in the credits that rolled out at the end of the day. When crunch time came, however, it was the Delusional People who had learned how to feed the mystique of those in the know that left everyone else feeling malnourished.

“Those who live in a dishonest manner will eventually get theirs,” our nuns told us in grade school. They also told us that, “Truth has a way of prevailing”. The company eventually discovered what everyone knew at the time, Molly was eventually discovered to be “not a good fit” for the position, but she was promoted up and out of the position, and out of the department, and the person who replaced her was yet another mystique feeder.

Those of us who lived and breathed corporate America heard all the stories about evil corporations, but we knew our corporate leadership board. They weren’t faceless corporate entities. They were people named Jeff and Sandy, and all the others who had kids and cats. We had one boss who was learning how to ride a motorcycle, and she drove one of her friend’s beloved Harleys into the ground, and it wasn’t funny, but it was. She was a real life, flawed individual who wasn’t afraid to show us her scars, literal and otherwise. When they speak in our corporate meetings, and our one on ones, we learn a little bit about their essence. We learned how they took their coffee, and what shows they went home to watch, and it all seemed so real, until they selected Molly for a big promotion.

We were all temporarily and permanently disillusioned. We thought our corporation was different, and that they hired and fired, and promoted and handed out raises based on merit. We believed that our corporation did not rise and fall based on the whims of faceless corporate entities. Ours was a real corporation comprised of people who knew us as well as we did them. We weren’t so delusion that we thought Jeff and Sandy knew us, but we thought some knowledge of our essence ascended from our bosses through the spider web, hierarchy, until we felt our efforts were recognized. 

The problem –those naïve enough to believe in the age of being real– discovered was not with Molly, but that Molly was emblematic of the problems inherent in a system that honest people once believed would find a way to provide rewards to those honest, hard working people who put their nose to the grindstone. The problem that seemed so complex to those of us who tried to wrestle with it, turned out to be so simple. The problem was that the various Jeffs and Sandys who controlled the spigots of reward for the hard working women and men in our company were humans themselves, and humans are inherently susceptible to flattery.

The nuns also provided their grade school students the proviso that if you’re living the honest life with the expectation of eventually receiving concretized recognition for it, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. We knew they were preaching gospel when they said this. Even if we didn’t know the depth of their statement, or how it might apply over time, some part of us knew that the rewards of living the honest life involve intangible, internal, and spiritual rewards. When the Delusional People begin to beat us to the more tangible goals in life, however, even the most honest assessors in a group will admit that it is difficult to avoid being affected by it, if they are being real with you.

Know Thyself

“I do not know myself yet, so it seems a ridiculous waste of my time to be investigating other, irrelevant matters,” —Socrates, on the subject of studying mythology and other trivial concerns.

“Know thyself?” we ask. “I know myself. In fact, I know myself better than anyone else does. Why would I waste my time trying to understand myself better when other people are the ones who make no sense? I have no problem with me, and this idea of trying to know thyself better, to the level the ancient Greeks and Socrates suggest, seems to be nothing more than a selfish conceit for pointy-headed intellectuals with too much time on their hands.”

Philosophers suggest that the key to living the good life lies in reflection and self-examination. If an individual does not have a full grasp of their strengths and weaknesses, any changes they make for the better might be pointless or unsustainable.

One of the measures some use to gain a better understanding of themselves is through comparative analysis. They use others to understand how weird, strange, and different they are, and they derive feelings of superiority and inferiority in the process. This analysis also provides some relief when they examine themselves against the freaks, creeps, and geeks. “At least I’m not that,” they declare.

Using the Cartesian coordinate system we studied in high school algebra might help us locate where we are compared to the point of origin, referred to here as the point of absolute normalcy, on one axis, versus our resultant superiority and inferiority on the other, to form a (0,0) for example, on the (X,Y) axis. This may be an inexact science, but comparative analysis is the most common method we use to know ourselves better.

We’ve all met strange individuals who tend to be strange in a more organic manner, and we know we’re not that. Through comparative analysis, we might say that the strangest person we meet exists five increments to the left of the point of normalcy on X axis of the Cartesian coordinate system, if being strange is a negative. Yet we know, because people have told us that we are not the type anyone would place on the point of origin, our arbitrary definition of absolute normal.

The first question those of us who seek truth through comparative analysis should ask is if we have a model for absolute normalcy. The second question regards the numerous ideas we all have about being normal, weird, and strange. Most consider these relative concepts nearly impossible to quantify, but I’m sure they would have an argument against defining us as the barometer by which all people striving for normalcy should be measured. Normal might be one of the most relative concepts there is, for we all define it internally and compare the rest of the world to our definition of it. How normal are we, and how normal is the most normal person we know?

If we prize normalcy, we might argue that for all of our eccentricities, we are quite normal. We might admit that a majority of people we run into are more normal than we are, but we also consider them just as boring. If we are able to admit that, we’re admitting that we are a two on the weird-to-normal axis. We can guess that our point on the X axis would have a corresponding effect on the Y axis if being normal has a corresponding relationship to self-esteem and the subsequent feelings of superiority. Through comparative analysis we could say, with some confidence, that we are a (2,2) coordinate, as compared to the rest of the normal, well-adjusted world.

When plotting points in our personal ledger, most people don’t view themselves honestly, and that makes it difficult to compare ourselves to others. Too often, we instinctually eliminate the negative in our quest to accentuate the positive. Thus, if we are the ones introducing the variables to this equation, there will always be contradictions, and these contradictions lead to the answer no solution.

The true solution to all that plagues us does not lie in comparative analysis, so everyone can put their pencils down. These ledgers are pointless. The solution to knowing more about oneself lies just inside the analysis we perform when deciding our comparative plotting points to form our Cartesian coordinate points. Most of us will not arrive at a definitive answer, but if the questions we ask ourselves lead to other questions we were on the correct road to final analysis through self-reflection. Ask more questions, in other words, and the subject of the interrogation is destined to provide their interrogator more answers. The point plotter might never find the perfect question that leads to a truth of it all, but questions lead to answers, and answers provide other questions, ultimately providing more answers than most that never ask them receive.


The great philosophers spent a lifetime asking questions of themselves and their followers, yet many in the audience considered their inquiries too general. Bothered by these complaints, some believed the ancient Greeks granted them a gift in the form of a maxim. One of the many things, the ancient Greeks offered was a simple inscription on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, reported to the world by Pausanias.

This gift was what modern-day philosophers might call the ancient philosophers’ “Holy stuff!” moment, and what a previous generation would call a “Eureka!” moment. To all philosophers since, it has become the foundation for all philosophical thought. For modern readers, the discovery may appear as vague as it has always been, but it is a comprehensive sort of vague that helped construct the science of philosophy. This simple, complex discovery was a Rosetta Stone for the human mind, human nature, and human involvement, and the ancient Greeks achieved it with two simple words, “Know thyself.”[1]           

Perhaps a modern translation or update of the ancient Greek maxim is necessary. Perhaps, today, we should say, “Keep track of yourself,” as that might be a better interpretation for those modern readers who are blessed or cursed with the many modern distractions that render such a task more difficult.

Although it could be said that mankind has found the investigation of other, more irrelevant matters far more entertaining for as long as we have occupied Earth, few would argue that we have more distractions from the central argument of knowing thyself than we have right now. Today, it is easier than ever before to lose track of who we are, who we really are.

The Holy Grail for those who produce images for our numerous screens is to create characters the audience can identify with so well that we relate to them. Another goal is to create characters that we not only relate to but we attempt to emulate. Idyllic images litter this path to the Holy Grail, and we associate with them so often that we begin to incorporate the characters’ idealism into our personality. On a conscious level, we know they are fictional characters, yet they exhibit such admirable characteristics that we attempt to mimic them when we are among our peers. Somewhere along the path, who we really are can get lost in the shuffle.

A decisive moment eventually arrives when we find that we’re having difficulty drawing a line of distinction between the subconscious incorporation of these fictional characteristics and the realization that we are not those characters and vice versa. This decisive moment is often one of crisis, and it can lead an identity crisis, because we always thought that when a moment of crisis arrived we would be able to handle it much better than we did.

When this identity crisis occurs, we might initially project an idyllic screen image version of us into reality. That version knows how to handle this crisis better than we ever will. Yet, it is not us, in the truest sense, but a different us, some fictional image we have created of us that handles pressure so much better. The trouble is, now that the reality of a real-world crisis stands before us, we cannot remember how that character that we resonated with did it.

In one distant memory, we were a swashbuckling hero who encountered a similar problem and dealt with it in a more heroic fashion. We might have encountered a verbal assault on our character in another distant, foggy episode, which we remember countering with a cynical, sardonic comeback that laid out our verbal assaulter. We cannot recall the specifics of these moments, now that really need them, because we weren’t really doing them. On some level, we recognize that we’ve been fooling ourselves, but we’ve incorporated so many idyllic images of so many characters handling so many situations with such adept fluidity that we’ve incorporated those idyllic screen images into our image of ourselves.

Another idyllic image occurs over time, in our interactions with peers. These images may be nothing more than a false dot matrix of carefully constructed, tiny mental adjustments made over time to deal with situational crises that have threatened to lessen our self-esteem, until we became the refined, sculpted specimen now capable of handling any situation that arises. These adjustments may be false interpretations of how we actually handled those previous confrontations, but we’ve preferred our rewrites for so long that they somehow became part of a narrative that we now believe.

We have all experienced moments in which we felt the need to correct a peer on the specific details of a past event, because their retelling of it to a third party is incorrect. When they don’t believe us, we invite others into the argument to augment it with overwhelming corroborating evidence. We are shocked when our peer refuses to acknowledge their error, even in the face of the corroborated account. At that point, we fear our peer must be delusional, and the only sane thing to do is walk away.

If we know them well, and we know they’re not delusional in general, we assume that they must be purposefully lying about the incident, spinning it to make themselves look better. We assume they need to colorize their role in it to boost their reputation and self-esteem. We think less of these confused, delusional, or lying individuals from a distance, and that distance suggests to us that we’ve achieved a place of honesty they never could.

After thoroughly condemning them, we encounter a similar scenario, only with the roles reversed. We won’t see it this way, of course, as a significant amount of time will pass between our confrontation and theirs, but my guess is most who confront the delusional experience someone who seeks to show us we have similar holes in our memory. It can be an eye-opening experience for those of us who strive for objective honesty, if we are able to see it for what it is.


Lurking in the fourth layer of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we find esteem. Maslow states, and I paraphrase, this need for greater self-esteem, this need for respect, value, and acceptance by others is vital to one’s sense of fulfillment.[2] If esteem is so vital to our psychological makeup, what happens when one of our peers succeed where we fail? If we are able to convince ourselves that these successes are an exception to the rule, we find an excuse, but when others achieve that success in the same vein and the repetition is such that we can no longer find a suitable excuse for our lack thereof, frustration and confusion sets in. We might even find ourselves sinking into depression. To avoid falling further down this spiral, we develop defense mechanisms.

Mental health experts say that if these defense mechanisms are nothing more than harmless delusions and illusions, they can actually be quite healthy. The alternative occurs when the reality of these repeated situations begins to overwhelm us. This can result in clinical depression or other forms of regressed mental health. If this is true, where is the dividing line between using delusions for greater mental health and becoming delusional?

If an individual attains what they seek from delusional thoughts and they get away these delusions in the court of public opinion, what’s to stop them from using those tools so often that they’re rewarded with a better perception among their peers, along with greater self-esteem? Why would they choose to moderate future delusions? What’s to stop the delusional thinker from continuing down their delusional paths, until they begin to lose track of who they are, who they really are?

Most historical research dedicated to the brain focuses on its miraculous power to remember, but some recent articles suggest that the power to forget and misremember seminal moments is just as fundamental to happiness and greater mental health.[3] The thesis suggests that the brain distills horrific memories and horrible choices, and it eliminates them for the sake of better mental health, in a manner similar to how the liver distills impurities out for better physical health.

Thus, we could say our delusional peers might be actually recalling the incidents differently as an unconscious attempt to improve their mental health. Their account of what happened may not be true, but did they create it to deceive us? We don’t know the answer to that and each situation calls for independent analysis, but experience with such matters and extensive reading on the subject has led me to believe they may just be deceiving themselves onto an idyllic path, the one they need for better mental health. To take this theory to its natural conclusion, one could also say those in need of professional counseling may have opted for the bright and shiny delusional paths too often. They might have subconsciously omitted embarrassing details from their memory and forget some of the self-esteem-crushing decisions they made along the way. Some may have filled those gaps with the actions or words of their favorite scripted responses or actions from screen actors. By replacing and redefining the embarrassing details and self-esteem-destroying decisions with idyllic images and positive reinforcements, they’ve spent a little too much time in those bright, shiny forests of positive illusions and delusions. The power of these idyllic images have become so ingrained that they now need a professional to take them by the hand and guide them back to the truth that they’ve hidden so far back in the forest of their mind that they can no longer find it without assistance.

That therapist attempts to express what amounts to teaching the client how to know thyself better. They assist the client in attempting to rid their mind of the accumulation of illusions and delusions that the client used to create a sense of superiority. They attempt to remove the dot matrix, idyllic images used to forestall mental health issues, as well as the need for excuses for why they failed when others succeeded. To remove these subjective views, the therapist asks their client questions the client should’ve been asking themselves all along, to help them achieve some form of personal clarity.

Some of us are better able to keep track of ourselves, to gain personal clarity as we age and as a result of experiences, but clarity cannot occur without extensive reflection, and Abraham Maslow suggested that 2 percent of the people in the world reflect enough to achieve self-actualization.[4] The comprehensive term personal clarity is not necessarily moral clarity, but without guiding principles, it is impossible to achieve it. Clarity serves as subtext for morality and vice versa.

Of course, no human being can achieve absolute clarity, as we are all unsure of ourselves in various moments and we are insecure by nature. Nevertheless, some submit the red herring argument that because absolute clarity is nearly impossible to achieve, it is pointless to strive for it. They also submit that because there are no absolutes, they don’t understand why anyone would attempt to achieve clarity on any matter. I submit that reliance on anecdotal arguments invites the confusion that inhibits progress toward clarity, and that their argument that a thoughtful person always focuses on anecdotal arguments permits them to avoid trying to achieve a level of clarity.

The final hurdle in achieving clarity by knowing thyself arrives when we recognize that too much comparative analysis intrudes upon introspection, as seen in the Cartesian coordinate system exercise above. There’s nothing wrong with comparing oneself to others, of course, as it helps us clarify our progress and learn more about our identity. Too much comparative analysis might distract us from who we really are, in some cases, as we attempt to assimilate their characteristics into our own, and it can dilute the acute focus we need to jump through the hoops involved in knowing thyself better, however, it becomes counterproductive.

It is for these reasons that greater minds than ours have suggested that the path to greater knowledge, a better life, happiness, and more self-esteem exists somewhere on the path to knowing thyself better. They also suggest that too often, we spend too much time investigating superfluous minutiae. It’s a waste of time, they say, for people with too much time on their hands.






Total Alien Superiority: The New Religion

What would you do if you scratched an itch on the back of your neck, and your hand came back with a tiny screaming alien on it?  What would you do if another alien, perched on the opposite shoulder, said: “Quit living your life in preparation of disaster!”

alienSome of those that have witnessed the “progressions” of our society away from traditional, organized religion to Zen Buddhism and beyond, suggest that some sort of progression is inevitable.  Will we ever reach a point where we are worshiping aliens from outer space?  We don’t know, but some have speculated that time-honored traditions, such as the Zen Buddhist’s bird on the shoulder will be replaced by “progressive” symbols for the progressed mind.  Will it ever be that aliens sit on our shoulder, as opposed to birds, that remind us that death is inevitable and unpredictable?

birdThe bird taught us that while some see death as a sad and sorrowful event, others treat the reminder of death that this bird provides, and eventually the alien, as a reason to live.  The alien will be a constant reminder that you’re delusional about your abilities, your likes and dislikes, and anything that you feel makes you an individual. The Alien will remind you that you are merely a product of sophisticated ad campaigns, TV and movie rhetoric, and peer pressure.  You may believe that you are a product of individualistic, free world choices that you have made throughout your life based upon research, knowledge, and free will.  You may believe that you sit atop the hierarchal pyramid of humans that laugh at those delusional humans who are susceptible to marketing campaigns, but you’re not, and the new-age aliens from outer space will remind you that you’re as susceptible to all of this as the know-nothing, follow the crowd guy that you mock in the course of your day.  You may think you’re above the fray, and that you’re not susceptible to all that is preached in our society, but everyone thinks that.  We’ve all become frayed in the same way.  The Alien on your shoulder is there to remind you that you are a nothing more than a member of the pack, the hive, or the crowd of people that think like you do, and it is your new vocation to listen to this alien and learn a little bit about yourself from its interpretation of the collective mind.

This alien may eventually become a “Zod” in your life, but you must remember that he is only perched on your shoulder to advise.  You will remain free to accept or reject his advice with the knowledge that you have made these decisions of your own accord, and any consequences of your actions, based on his advice, are all yours.

One of your fellow humans said it is far easier to entertain than it is to educate, but your alien will try to combine the two in a daring attempt to keep your interest while educating you about you and the world around you.

I now introduce you to the alien on your shoulder.

“Quit living your life in preparation of disaster!” is the first piece of advice that the alien will provide you when you are shocked to learn of his existence.  His sudden appearance, and his entire existence, will be predicated on the collective ideal that God is dead.  The emergence of these aliens, and their deification, will be predicated on a societal progression away from traditional religion, into secularism, and eventually into a belief in anything that will not be far away when the mother ship lands in Lebanon, Kansas, a place chosen for its geographical location in the center of the United States.

At this point in history, an individual that builds a shrine to aliens from outer space is currently looked down upon as an outlier in society, but how far are we away from Total Alien Superiority (TAS) in our search for belief in something?  It will be, “as it always was”  when we reach TAS that the aliens will begin making their appearance on our collective shoulders to hit us with this first piece of advice.

Once the alien makes its appearance, and the evolution to TAS is complete, alien relics will begin replacing the current more traditional, spiritual relics in our homes, churches, and synagogues, and we will most likely develop some form of hierarchy, such as the one portrayed in Superman II.  We will have a Zod, in other words, that we pay homage to, that we sacrifice for, and that we direct the purpose of our daily lives towards.  For the purpose of clarity and consistency, we will refer to the ultimate deity of TAS as Zod in this conversation, since we cannot know what the evolved human of the future will call their god.

Any religion worthy of attaining followers also has their non-believers and heretics, and TAS will be no exception.  The heretics will suggest that TAS is an extreme reach by those that cling to traditional structures and religions norms. Those that suggest such notions are foolish are, themselves, not well-schooled in the field of neurology, for there are numerous findings documented in periodicals such as Psychology Today, and Scientific American Mind, that suggest that the human brain is hard wired to a belief in something, and as our society progresses toward the ridicule of the belief, and worship, of God, we will eventually need to find something to replace Him.  Our brains need a belief in something greater than us, in a manner similar to the way stomachs need food, and if we have no spiritual guidance we will feel a cerebral emptiness and purposeless that needs to be quenched in an anatomical sense equivalent to manner in which water quenches thirst and food quenches hunger.  Human beings need spiritual nourishment in other words, and we will look to any source we can find for that nourishment once God is truly dead in our society.

The quasi-religion that is currently helping us bridge the gap to the eventual progression to TAS is Zen Buddhism.  It is the current, most prominent quasi-religion for those seeking relief from the societal scorn of being religious, and the judgmental rules of a religion, while still feeding the need for belief.

As humans evolve past a deity, and eventually past the Zen Buddhist bird, we will evolve to (TAS).  We will also evolve past the pressure that the bird places on us to live each day to the fullest to one that involves a stress free life without expectations.  We will also evolve our deities past the idea of death to the idea that life can be free of the threat of death if one learns how to live properly.  This deity will not be judgmental, and the eventual, evolved human being will follow suit.  The “Zod” of the alien culture will speak of a life free of money, death, the stress and pressure of living life to the fullest, and it will eventually evolve us back to our metaphysical, primal beginnings where we were once at one with God –now replaced by Zod– equal with Him in a manner only the truly devoted will understand. We will also live the harmonious, drug-induced life depicted in Star Trek’s “The Way to Eden” episode. We don’t know if our women will speak in soft, sensuous whispers in the manner they did in that episode, or if our men will say “man” as a conjunction to break up a sentence and “Daddy-O” to punctuate it, but if Gene Roddenberry proves to be the excellent prognosticator he has been thus far, it’s likely.

The Surreal Stillness of the Night

A strange part of me came to life in the surreal stillness of the nights I spent trying to sleep in strange places. It wasn’t born in one night of my youth, or in one morning after, but it occurred over the course of decades of insomnia nights spent in other people’s homes. I was never one who could just sleep anywhere. I had to have my pillow, my blankets, my room temperature, my environment, and my comfort level. Yet, when someone would invite me for a sleepover, I would jump at the chance. 

midnightI loved spending the night at other people’s homes, but I could never sleep there. I loved the days I spent with friends, and I loved the nights. I loved sitting around telling ghost stories, talking about football and girls, and hating on the teach, but I dreaded the moment their Mom would step in the room and say, Okay, it’s time for bed now guys.” I knew I would be forced to lie there, still, and silent, looking at their furniture, the ceiling splotches, and their trinkets. I knew there would be nothing to do, other than finding sleep. I knew I would envying my friends for their ability to sleep, and I knew their trinkets would come to life, but I had no idea that a strange part of me would come to life as a result.

When a kid is at another person’s house in those after midnight hours, they can’t just flip on the tube, run outside to check out the various comings and goings of the neighborhood, or snoop through their stuff. Doing any of these things will be regarded as incredibly impolite. If the kid is a normal kid, and the only reason they’re invited to stay over is based on the idea that they’re normal, they learn to lie there quietly and just hope that the dream world will eventually take them. If they’re anything like me, it never does, because they can’t sleep in strange places. They’re trapped in their bed, inside their head, in a cell called insomnia.

Trinkets have little-to-no value to anyone during the day. They had no value to me either, during the day. They were something on a table. They were a Civil War-era cannon placed in the middle of a living room table? They were small items that said funny or wise things on them. There was a reason that they were selected, but I could never understand what those reasons were. I never understood how a person selected one trinket over another. Do they depict the person we are, or the person we want to be? Some of them are funny, as I said, but they’re not too funny. Too funny can make a person seem simple. If there was a grand design my friend’s parent’s had in mind when they chose the trinkets, I didn’t know what it was, and I spent hours trying to figure it out.  

My life had no grand design, but I was a kid. I lived day to day, but I thought everything an adult did had some kind of grand design to it, and I thought their trinkets reflected that. On the rare occasion when I knew the adults well enough to ask them about the agenda they had in selecting their trinkets, I was often disappointed. “I just like it is all,” was the crux of their response. Most of them would see my disappointment and look at me strangely. Hey, you bought them, I wanted to say. I wanted to tell them that they should have some sort of agenda, that led to their preferences. Life shouldn’t be so random that one just buys a cute, little ceramic frog, because it’s cute and little and ceramic. That’s chaos. Trinkets should speak to your personality, your narrative. I don’t have an agenda now, I would think, but I’m a kid. You should’ve figured something out about life that you could teach me. So, you’re saying that these things are just taking up space, so your coffee table isn’t bare. Is this why you have fruit and flower paintings on the wall, because you hate empty spaces? Or, is your life devoid of meaning? I don’t mean to sound condescending, but you have to give me something here! No matter what your friend’s parents say, all of these trinkets take on a special meaning in the surreal stillness of the night when you’re the only conscious person politely enduring the hours of silence and stillness.

There was a band member with a ten foot drum tied to his waist sitting on one of my friend’s nightstands. The band member had a broad smile on his face that suggested that he was very proud of the station he had achieved in life. There was a panda bear, on the other nightstand that had an arm sticking out for someone to put keys or a watch on. There was a small, replica cannon that one could roll around on a coffee table. What went into these choices, I would wonder to myself. I knew they would say it was nothing, but there had to be some reason that they chose these trinkets to decorate their living room. There had to be something meaningful that I could discern from these otherwise, mundane products.

A clock had grand embroidering on its flanks. It took the shape of a starfish with incongruity in its flanks. I remember wondering if it would be seen as classy among the elite interior design consultants. It had bland, black colors on its flanks with a silver middle, but the interior design elites often complimented that which was bland. The experts often insulted that which stood out with bright colorization. They called that loud. I remember wondering if anyone would stare up at this clock and say: “Now that’s a clock.” Whatever value it may have had during the day was exaggerated throughout the never-ending nights I spent staring up at it.

A horse was depicted raised up on its haunches, and the man on the horse was drawn back. I don’t know if it was General Custer, but that was the image often associated with Custer. I remember wondering if anyone ever talked about this piece. Did anyone ever pick it up, and examine it, and talk about it? Did it have any value beyond taking up space?

That’s what trinkets are I decided on one of these sleepless nights: objects designed for the sole purpose of taking up space. As the hours passed, and my delirium weakened me, I began to assign feelings to these trinkets. I saw them as lonely objects in need of attention. When the day returns, I promised myself, I would assign some sort of value to them. I would pay attention to them when no one else would. I would ask their owners about them, and I considered the idea that these questions might console the trinkets into believing that they had some value.

I would play and replay these conversations in my mind. I would provide my listener with better retorts. The retorts I gave them, during the day, proved insufficient. I would watch them laugh at these new retorts. I would rewrite their impressions of me, based on these new retorts. 

I would then drift into other conversations that occurred on other days. I would remember my responses to things said, and some of the times I would cringe. I would correct those conversations the next time I saw that person. I thought of the perfect responses that would lay out those who sought to damage my image. Some of the times, I would accidentally laugh aloud when I would recall those heroic moments when I cracked a real zinger off. I would look at my friend to make sure he was still asleep, and then I would remember how everybody laughed, and I would think of them considering my comedic value. I would accidentally laugh aloud again.

As the hours stretched on, and my stress level and delirium began battling for dominance, I would picture how mouths moved when people spoke. I would picture their eyebrows twitch when they made expressions. I would think about how everyone took turns speaking, and how no matter how many people are in a room there is always a pecking order. I would think about clothing choices, and why one person drove a jeep and another drove a VW bug. I would think about how some people chewed their food, and I would remember that Al Gaeta didn’t mind if his Jello and his mashed potatoes mingled. “It all comes out the same!” he said. I thought about how I was going to work that into a conversation one day. I would think about how some achieved dominance in the everyday of life and others were forever caught in a subservient role. I would become so focused on the minutiae of life that it drove me to sanity’s border.

These moments were stressful, unhappy moments in my life that would congeal with later experiences in life to gestate into the material that sits before you now. It wasn’t born in one night, or in one morning after, and I’m appreciative of those moments that bore such fruit, but if becoming normal is dependent on getting the required amount of hours of sleep, I would’ve much preferred sleep.

Time flies by in life, and it flew by in mine, but there were agonizing nights spent at friend’s homes when time slowed to a crawl. In these moments, I agonized and celebrated small moments in life, and I began to examine and re-examine those moments, until I began to wonder if anyone else in the world had these moments. I realized that the simple act of sleeping was the mind and the body’s attempt to recuperate from the day. I wondered if anyone valued their lives, and the fact that when we all woke we would be granted another day, the way I had in these early morning hours. When they wake and speak to me, I decided that I would pay special attention to them, for in these wee hours of the morning communication between humans becomes a little more surreal to me.

There were times when we would play those sleeping games. When there were six or seven of us, the first one down faced the wrath of the rest of the group. We would jam Trolli worms up their nose, or put shaving cream in their hand and tickle their nose, so that they would jam shaving cream up their nose. Needless to say, I was never that guy. Once the laughter died down, and everyone settled into sleep, I would be left on the other side of the joke: The only one still awake. The punishment was different for that guy.

When I eventually awoke, I realized that I had been granted some sleep, but I was so tired that I didn’t want to engage in the customary conversations of the day. I wanted to forget all that I thought about in the grips of delirium and frustration, and just go home and catch up on some of the sleep I lost at their house. I hated my friends for inviting me over, I hated them for wanting to speak to me in the morning, and I hated them for having a house. I also hated their trinkets. All those questions I dreamed up about the trinkets the night before, were forcefully pushed out of mind. I didn’t even want to think of them. All I wanted was some sleep.

I returned their good mornings, those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed good mornings, and I smiled when Buggs Bunny did something funny. Normal kids find Buggs Bunny funny, and I wanted to be normal. For one day, in my otherwise abnormal life, I wanted to be normal. I did hate Buggs Bunny for being funny, on these mornings, and I loathed my friends for being so simple-minded as to laugh at something specifically written to generate a laugh. I would decide, in the throes of this delirious morning, that when I returned to the normal world, I would do things that other people considered normal, so they could enjoy being around me. I decided not to tell those who liked me, and cared about me, what went on inside my head as a result of so many delirious nights, over so many years, but a person can only take so many of these blows without being affected by them.

I’ve heard some creative types say that anyone that has creative inclinations should use hallucinogenic drugs to supplement the creative centers of their brain. I’ve heard some creative types suggest that they cannot imagine approaching a creative project without, at the very least, experimenting with such substances. I found the alternative. I’ve heard some people say that taking even one hallucinogenic drug forever alters the brain in ways I’m sure these creators spoke of, but I would suggest that anyone that wants to be creative spend a portion of their youth without sleep. It forces the mind to concentrate on minutiae the mind otherwise would not, the surreal stillness of the night focuses the mind on all of the conversations the person has had throughout the day, until they’re editing, and rewriting, those conversations in a creative manner, and it affects the mind in a way that’s nearly unalterable. If the reader has read through a number of the pieces we’ve provided here, and they decide that they don’t want their children to be anything like that, they should check in on their kids every once in a while to sure they’re getting enough sleep.

The Healthy Nature of Illusions and Delusions

“They’d listen if I complained,” a delusional friend of mine said moments after I told him I went to the boss man and complained, and that I didn’t think that my complaint would register.  He said this in the midst of one of my fell-fledged rants, and he said in such an egocentric manner that I felt he was in dire need of a reality check.

If you knew my friend, you’d know that he wasn’t the type to say such things to tweak people in a good-natured, competitive sense.  He believed he was a more valued employee than I was.  He believed that he was one of the most valued employees in the company.

t1larg.boss.gettyAnd if the world operated in a fair manner, my friend would’ve been an employer’s dream.  He was a hard worker, and an eager student for those that could inform him how he could do his job better today than he did yesterday.  He was a quiet man that didn’t want to socialize on the clock, and he even tried to avoid drinking soda, not for health reasons, but to avoid taking too many trips to the bathroom on the company dime.  He tried to avoid speaking in meetings, because he didn’t want to be perceived as a complainer, or trouble maker.  He wanted to do the work he loved and be compensated accordingly.

He believed in the old adage that if you kept your head low, and your nose to the grindstone, they noticed.  They may not have said anything to him, but “trust me they notice.  And if I ever did complain, all that hard work, and obeying the rules, would pay off.  Trust me.”

I had worked for too many corporations to trust him however, for I knew it was human nature for an employer to take model employees for granted.  I did not have the temerity to tell him that his beliefs were delusions, however, and that he would one day have his unhealthy delusions shattered.

When I would later read, in a Psychology Today article, written by Merel van Beeren*, is that psychologists believe that the delusional are exhibiting greater mental health than I am.  This would prove to be a direct contradiction of the beliefs I’ve had about the unhealthy nature of the illusions and delusions we have about the power and control of our day-to-day lives.

“People overestimate their agency, but it’s for the best –those with an accurate sense of their own influence are often depressed.  Participation in lotteries goes up when players can choose their own numbers, even though they are no more likely to win.”   

“I choose to stay employed at the company,” is something we might say to bolster this argument.  “If the boss man changes the rules on me in a fashion I don’t care for, I can always quit.  It’s not like I’m being held against my will, or locked into employment at this company.  This is America, the land of opportunity, and there are numerous opportunities out there for someone like me.”

Fair enough, but how many of us do leave the company?  How many of us get locked into the fear that we cannot do anything else?  How many of us get locked into the “At least I have a job!” mentality that helps us deal with the changes the boss man makes that affect us in a negative manner?

“Well,” we say, “I guess I do have the option to leave the company I work for, and I guess I could drop out of the workforce altogether if I want to go live with my Mom, but I have chosen to live free of those constraints.  I have chosen to live by certain constraints, beset upon me by my boss, so that I might be a self-sufficient individual who lives free based on the payment he gives me to live within his rules.”

The point, as I see it, is most of us do not view these matters in such constructs.  We think everyone has to have a job.  There is a “40-hour a week, paycheck on Friday, and put up with constraints” mentality that we have.  If you think this is an exaggeration, try quitting your job and going out on your own.  Try existing in a realm that is free of constraints in a relative fashion.  The first, and most prominent aspect of life that you’ll miss is the routine of a work day, and then you’ll miss the structure that that mentality provides.  You’ll feel an odd sense of worthlessness that you cannot explain, because you’re used to being a drone, and you’ve trained yourself to be an employee and to accept what the boss man says.  You’re locked into this mentality.

In the freest country the world has ever known, we get locked into a mindset that this is all we can do, so we will put up with the boss man’s constraints.  In order to support ourselves, and continue to be free, and self-sufficient, we make compromises.  But Where is the Line? the singer/songwriter Bjork once asked.  Where is that line between the freedoms we give up and the freedoms we enjoy, and how much freedom are we willing to give up to be free?  As the writer of this Psychology Today article suggests, analyzing all of this can lead to depression, and it’s much healthier to delude one’s self into believing that we’re free and in total control of our own universe.

It’s much healthier, for example, to believe that we have some say in the rule changes that the boss man employs than it is to examine how valuable we are in lieu of the changes the boss man has made to affect our work dynamic in a negative manner.  It’s much healthier, to think that we are such valuable employees that there is some fear in the boss man that prevents him from making such drastic changes that would affect our decision to stay with the company than it is to acknowledge that the boss man often decides what is best for his company’s bottom line first, what is best for all of his employees second, and then what is best for the individual employee last, unless we fit into the second group of course.  If we don’t, the boss man will find a way to sell his change to us in a manner that satisfies our ego.

There is a great website out there that has a single joke on it.  It’s called Office Versus Prison, and it details how the office space mirrors the day-to-day activities of the prison.  The following are a few of my favorites:

IN PRISON…you spend the majority of your time in an 8×10 cell.
AT WORK…you spend most of your time in a 6×8 cubicle.

IN PRISON…you can watch TV and play games.
AT WORK…you get fired for watching TV and playing games.

IN PRISON…they allow your family and friends to visit.
AT WORK…you cannot even speak to your family and friends.

IN PRISON…all expenses are paid by taxpayers with no work required
AT WORK…you get to pay all the expenses to go to work and then they deduct taxes from your salary to pay for prisoners.

IN PRISON…you spend most of your life looking through bars from the inside wanting to get out.
AT WORK…you spend most of your time wanting to get out and go inside bars.

IN PRISON…there are wardens who are often sadistic.
AT WORK…they are called managers.

My friend lived with the delusion that if he ever decided to take the floor and complain, the higher ups would sit up and take notice.  Things would change.  ‘They may not listen to the average employee, but they’ll listen to me,’ was his mindset.

I would barrage him with a list of complaints I had about the way things were done on a week-to-week basis.  He would remain quiet, with a quiet smile on his face.  “Doesn’t that frustrate you?” I would ask.  Most of them time it didn’t.  Most of the time he had already developed a rationale for the way things were done, but some of the times he would get just as enraged as me.  “Too bad there’s not a darned thing we can do about it!” I would say to sum up our unified frustration on those occasions.  I would tell him that I complained to the boss man, and I was given some lame excuse for why things would continue to be the way they were.

“They’d listen if I complained,” my friend said.  Of course that statement bothered me, as it fed into my insecure belief that, in Merel van Beeren’s words, my friend’s agency was more valuable than mine in the company.  I told him that he, again in the words of van Beeren’s, overestimated his agency in the company.  I warned him that there would come a day when he risked letting people know his opinion of the way things were done, and he would find out that the boss man just wanted him to shut up and go back to being that face in the crowd that accepted his changes for what they were.

My knowledge was not theoretical.  It was firsthand knowledge that I gained by being a man that kept most of his complaints in check, until that moment arrived when something meaningful came my way.

I used to think that if you picked your battles for subjects that you had deep concerns about, the boss man would be more apt to listen.  I was wrong.  I learned that the boss doesn’t care for complaints, and he doesn’t give more weight to complaints that come from a person that doesn’t complain often.  They just want you, and the person that complains all the time, to shut up and learn your station in life.  Coming to that realization was, as Merel van Beeren pointed out, caused me a sense of depression that I wished I could walk back.

My friend did complain about the way things were done, after a time, and he found that he had overestimated his agency, and he quit the company.  My friend didn’t quit right away.  He loved the company, but his moment of epiphany was just as painful as mine.  He learned that by avoiding the complaint, you don’t gain the respect of the boss man, you slip into the favored status of rarely seen, never heard, and the minute you pop that delusion, you shatter everything you once held dear.

If Merel van Beeren is to be believed, and I must say he puts forth a pretty decent argument, my friend was the healthy one in our friendship, until I poked so many holes in his delusions that I brought my unhealthy skepticism to his life and depressed him.

* van Beeren, Merel.  The Skeptic’s Cheat Sheet.  June 2012. Psychology Today. Pg. 22.