This post is long, personal, and perhaps with time could be better developed. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I know I’ll return to this theme again.
In a recent Daily Show interview, Barbara Ehrenreich said “I am always opposed to delusion.” Even, she emphasized, when the truth was more painful. The audience clapped, and I greatly identified with this sentiment. I do not like deception. I don’t like it when others try to deceive others, or when people try to lie to themselves. Ignoring what is true make me very uncomfortable, and oftentimes has led me to cultivate a segment of myself that is founded in negativity. This contrarian personality-bit has often been prominent, wanting mainly to destroy deception but, troublingly, not wanting to replace it with something positive.
Being a contrarian, being one who points the finger at bullshit, hypocrisy, and delusion is in many ways only a beginning. One only has to say “There it is!” or “I see some over there,” and merely identify bullshit, drag it into the proverbial Harsh Light of Day and congratulate oneself on a Job Well Done. Moreover, the contrarian can utilize her emotions of reaction and disdain, can say to herself “my hatred of delusion and desire for intellectual purity is useful.” The contrarian imagines herself as a bristling guard dog, a vigilant protector and herald of truth. The urge to destroy and tear down seems like an asset, even like something that should be cultivated.
The problem with this, though, is that one may turn into a mere naysayer, one who destroys but never creates. My images of this are Christopher Hitchen and Penn Jillette, two men whom I consider immensely amusing and occasionally stimulating, but whose ideologies seem ultimately unfulfilling. Regardless of their probable complexities, they seem to be mere corpulent destroyers, bellowing overgrown juveniles who put the highest value on smug destruction and another glass of scotch.
In addition, having a standpoint of pure reaction leaves one with the unrewarding feeling that one may be a bit of a coward. If all you do is attack and jeer, you are in an unassailable position. What do you believe? What are you for? That’s unknown. That can only be inferred by your arguments against things. If you have not bothered to erect any kind of real position for yourself, you know, at the back of your mind, that you are acting in a risk-averse way. Such behavior patterns invite self-doubt and regret.
Irony, cynicism, and reaction will only take you so far. They are useful tools, and may be a bit too much fun to use. Ultimately, one will be left only with the corpses of dead delusions, and not much in the way of real value surrounding oneself. “What did I do? What did I achieve?” One must be positive, constructive. Merely being non-negative is not existentially satisfying. Irony, beautiful blade that it is, is a poor building tool. Sincerity must be let it. For ultimate satisfaction, one must, include, and create and experience the opposite of the contrarian’s prevailing emotions.
Recent activities that I’ve found most fulfilling have been those that are non-ironic. I prospered most in Japan when I allowed myself to be inundated with the ambient sincerity of the landscape and traveled with what I hope was a minimum amount of judgment. More recently, I attended Burning Man and was in a Flaming Lips video. These are activities that could have invited some ridicule, but are rewarding and awesome precisely because of the verve and unabashed sincerity that pervaded the proceedings. I feel much the same way about writing.
The problem is, once you invite sincerity into the room, self-doubt comes with it. You may very well produce or do things that invite irony-laced criticism. Also, being in favor of construction, inclusion, and creativity means that you will have to share a certain amount of space with hokum. Not everything created or fervently felt will be worthwhile. There will be waste and error, precisely of the sort that one who is formerly so contrarian will be tempted to bark and snarl at. Spirituality, conspiracy theories, and baseless emotions will be impossible to entirely weed out from the conversation- indeed, the former cynic might find herself espousing some of those things in moments of weakness or nonlucidity. I found plenty of these during my recent hippie-flavored wanderings, and had to remind myself that these things were the byproducts of what were largely worthwhile experiences. Indeed, quelling the urge to bristle and argue made the experience more rewarding.
Another problem is the worry that with all your newfound sincerity, you’ll become the prey of some other contrarian, some other wolf just looking to sink her acquisitive teeth into someone who’s gone soft. The newly sincere find themselves wondering whether they will suddenly be on the wrong side of truth, find themselves playing with delusion, fancies, and hypocrisy and will have to bare their throat in shame after some other critic reveals their inconsistency and surrender to unreason.
This will happen.
Anyone who attempts to be constructive, to be creative and positive, will find themselves straying somewhere where they are not rational, where they do indeed lie to themselves and others. When some other predator does find the wayward, does bring them back down to earth, though, it should not be viewed as a defeat. Instead, the quarry should look to her pursuer and say “Thank you. Thank you for keeping me honest, for bringing me back to what I know are my true values. The flight into momentary delusion was a necessary risk of the creative process, however.”
Having trained oneself to point a finger at bullshit, to shout down hypocrisy, inconsistency, and deception, it takes a certain amount of discipline to stay in constructive, creative mode. The urge to call out the idiotic or unrealistic for what it is must be suppressed a little, and that small amount of restraint can be a niggling worry at the back of the former contrarian’s mind. There is an urge, a strong urge, to wipe the field of play as utterly clean, completely free of hypocrisy and delusion. The cynic can often think of the truth as a sort of absence, a blank, white desert where no sort of bullshit can grow. Pure and apprehendible, objective and unmistakable, but such a landscape allows for nothing at all.
As bleak as this sounds, though, I prefer going from negativity to sincerity, rather than the other way around. Instead of being a jaded former romantic who gradually has lost his illusions, I like coming from a standpoint where (for the most part) my negativity has learned to accommodate the positive. This has been a process of growth and loosening rather than losing illusions. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I have gotten more positive, not less. This seems to be the opposite of the conventional wisdom, of young idealists having their visions crushed and becoming jaded cynics. There has been some of that, too, but for the most part I’ve found myself to tolerate the purely positive, which, in the end, is rewarding.
It is worth remembering that sincerity is not an inflexible master, that opinions and theses may be revised in the face of new evidence. Heartfelt belief in an error does not mean that one may not fix that error, nor that one’s decision-making capabilities are fundamentally flawed. With this in mind, one’s unabandoned contrarian mindset may be used as a kind of error correction mechanism with regards to whatever one is sincerely constructing. Irony and its attendant tools will not be used to create a flat, pure field of nondelusion, but rather as pruning shears of sorts, tools to make something positive prosper.