I used to call myself a genius–still do, sometimes, if I’m going to be honest. And I am honest. It is a singular point of pride, even if I am arguing a point-of-view I wholeheartedly disagree with. That is merely an effort to understand the ways that people other than myself think, something of my true quest in life. That is ultimately why I call this site Recording Editorial History. It is a record of opinions, others and my own. These are the dialogues we encounter in the real world, those ideas that push reality into separate corners and challenge one other to proclaim our absolute truth.
But people . . . just listen to them (and I am in no way less guilty of this sin than the asshole in a locker room boasting about how beautiful his girl is). People in their public guise love to build themselves up and exaggerate their accomplishments, not even to make themselves feel better about their random flaws and doubts, but to impose a vision of themselves with no basis in reality upon other people, making them believe that you are someone you will never be, no matter how hard to try.
When I was teaching I used to invent a narrative about myself, altered for every class by a tweak here and there, to assume an identity that the students were unsure about, and did not know exactly what to make of me. They did not know whether to be scared, or think that I understood their pain as a result of my struggles.
The best way to lie, and have people believe it, is to play your accomplishments down. Yes, you were involved with something exciting, or phenomenal, even groundbreaking, but you were only a small part of the outcome, or you weren’t even very good at your part. Yes, you did something monumental, but you fucked up a whole lot along the way. Why would anyone doubt your exotic accomplishments if you say that you really weren’t important to whatever this was?
As a teacher I used to tell my students, in various guises, that I was a former State Department analyst, not some blam-blam action hero, but merely a guy in a suit working in dangerous places, with a laptop to send my reports. I was a low-level spy, I said, a ‘data analyst. Yes, I carried a guy, but I never had to use it. I had a high level security clearance, and I knew a great many things, but I was peripheral anything important. Yes, I witnessed horrible things, and it is certain that I met with a number of foiled terrorists. I even interrogated them, a few times. I would spend time at home studying Arabic and Farsi and Russian in order to blurt out a few spy phrases to make these children believe I was something I was not.
Now you might be questioning why I would do such a thing. What kind of an asshole would do that? And regardless of how hollow the following justification may sound, it is what I truly believed, and the hook my numerous identities would dangle upon. I was studying the coming generation’s response to deep government, and some of the dirty background things that had definitely happened. I worked extremely hard to make history lessons interesting for students, those who had no interest whatsoever in the bland pablum that was shoved down their throats in the form of names and dates. I would talk about failed coups and overthrown governments. There would be all sorts of discussions of the FBI and CIA plots that fueled the paranoia of the cold war, and gave birth to the conspiratorial longing we are all suffer from today.
Most of the students, as with teenagers everywhere, exaggerated every aspect of themselves, believing their own lies more than anybody else. They always seemed nervous, terrified that someone who actually knows their experiences will come in, answer a question, and shatter their careful made persona. I had the benefit of being the teacher, someone who no one ultimately cares about (except when something tragic happens, and cards filled with money are passed around). I could say anything I wanted and there was no reason not to believe me.
One year I had a few particularly threatening sixteen-year olds. They were bigger and stronger than me, and I have no doubt that they could have destroyed me should they have decided to take a swing. And so I put on a sociopathic coldness, with tales of martial arts prowess, and the arms and legs I had broken in the past when confronted. Of course I mentioned the few times I lost, or got knocked out, to give some humility to my tale of being far tougher than I actually am, but they believed me. They chose not to mess with me. Having learned a handful of moves, both from a friend of mine with a black belt in ju jitsu, as well as watching my son (then six or seven years old–he is a black belt now) in taekwon-do class, I gave an example of how easily I could break their wrist and elbow in one grasp. They laughed and backed away, spreading rumors about my having once killed a student. I never claimed this, but is was an organic development from the absurdity I claimed.
Listen to how people talk–not just what they say, which is often a cover for their true meaning–but how they say it. What is their tone? Describe the undercurrent of doubt, or anger, confidence or self-loathing. These sounds are always there, always a part of the conversation we tend to avoid. And I am not talking about Donald Trump (at least not this time, on a similar theme). He is merely a braggart for whom nothing he did has ever been good enough for those who judge him, and nothing anyone else could possibly do can meet his full approval. He is a lost soul, someone for whom everything must be “the best ever” or else it does not count.
More ordinary people (at least in the conditions surrounding how they live their lives) are consumed by visions of who they wish they were, who they think they are, and who they may become if things go differently for them. There are even miserable people who exaggerate their sorrow, another cry for acknowledgment, imagining themselves more unhappy than anyone has ever been.
To close out this somewhat scattered portrait of self-deception, I wish to recall two students who died when I was in junior high school. Both of them were extremely intelligent, but also very anxious. Weird. People tended to avoid them for various reasons. One of them (no names) had been born with a heart defect. This was apparently treated poorly while he was very young, and led to a bone being snapped in his chest, which stuck out prominently. He dressed with everything buttoned up, often cold even in the summer. He was small, gray, and sometimes came to school with an oxygen tank and tubes stuck in his nose.
But he was joyful when his energy allowed it–ebullient! Everything was interesting to him, and he yearned for new experiences, likely knowing that he did not have long to live. He was outspoken, demanding, yet very kind and generous, willing to see and hear anything there was from all different sides. In many ways this boy became a role model for me after he died at the age of twelve. He had a heart attack in the middle of class, convulsing and shrieking on the floor. We were all traumatized. But I can still remember him being carted out on the stretcher–the last time I saw him alive–with a wan smile of satisfaction on his face. He had one more experience to confront head on. His whole life had been consumed by questions of death, and now he would finally have his answers.
The other boy–this was two years later–had been in the room when the first boy died. He was a strange kid–his parents did not love him. He strikes me in retrospect as someone perhaps sexually abused all of his life. He was a good-looking kid too, yet avoided girls with shuddering terror, constantly afraid that he would humiliate himself. He seemed to see a potential girlfriend as the one thing that could lift him out of his trap. He was tall, fit, and yet he took part in nothing. He had no friends by choice. I used to talk to him in class, even then being fascinated by perverse human nature.
This boy used to talk about death in a far more profound way. He was an artist too–or at least he spent a great deal of time creating intricate pen drawings that, at the time, seemed to be ideal for heavy metal band t-shirts, but in hindsight were perhaps the images he saw surrounding him, haunting him, each one competing to claim him. And his torment was unfathomable–even to an exaggerated crank and misanthrope like me.
One day he told me that he hated the world, that he hated his life, and that he wished the planet would explode and end all of our misery. At the time I could not take him seriously, both of us having a dark sense of humor. The context of these statements had been in the middle of some mutually pessimistic giggle fest he and I had been sharing. He said that no one could possibly understand how unhappy he was. He said he was the saddest person on earth. Being only 14, and in no way a sympathetic person, I disregarded this as the obvious preface of what was to come, and challenged him–“oh yeah? Well listen to this!” We laughed through our continual hyperbolic duel, and it made the depressed pair of us momentarily feel better.
A few weeks later word came back that this boy had gone into the garage at his home with his mother’s car keys, turned the thing on, and shut himself in that gas chamber for hours. He had turned green by the time they found him, and the car had run out of gas. This is one of the consequences of such an exaggerated sense of self.
We all want to believe in our greatness. Chances are, there is something you are truly great at. But we doubtfully repeat these claims to ourselves far too often, ultimately creating a church of our self-belief. And once we start to pray to this sort of god, you are no longer in control. It is like the AA mantra of accepting a higher power. We sometimes deem ourselves a higher power, while realizing that we really aren’t that great.