Life-changing lessons can be learned even from the most painful of situations. I know we all know this, but it can be hard to remember when you're struggling to make sense of a situation that brings you to your knees with pain and grief.
This year saw the gradual deterioration and sudden, painful end of a friendship that was important to me. My former friend turned out to be . . . not the person I thought he was. (In fairness, I'm sure he probably feels the same about me.) He deceived me (intentionally or not, doesn't matter), but that isn't what makes me saddest. Lately I have been pondering the many ways we deceive ourselves, and this friend is a prime object lesson for me. From my perspective it appears that he sees himself one way, while the people who know him well realize he is something else altogether — not a fundamentally bad person, but not nearly as enlightened or honest or generous or open-minded as he truly and sincerely believes himself to be. As a friend, it has been excruciatingly difficult to watch him sabotage his future by his own actions, while he blames other people for his misfortunes and his inability to accomplish his dreams.
But this post isn't about him or my opinion of him. It's about what I am learning by observing my friend's self-deception and its destructive consequences. Because rather than dwelling on and analyzing my friend's weaknesses, I have tried hard to turn my analysis on myself, asking this question: How am I deceiving myself? What do I truly and sincerely believe about myself that simply is not true?
This is, of course, a far harder task. Each of us can easily see the flaws in other people's reasoning and beliefs, but we often are blind to the flaws in our own. Our choices and actions generally make perfect sense to us, while we can identify with crystal clarity the irrationality or error in the choices others make. What we do is wholly justified (in our minds); what others do is inexcusable. That's why we can blithely demand justice for others, but beg mercy for ourselves.
I cannot help my friend, but I am trying to learn from what I've seen my friend do to himself. I'm trying to ferret out the assumptions about myself that underlie my own choices and behavior, and analyze those assumptions carefully and with as clear an eye as it's possible to turn on myself. Daily I try to honestly evaluate my actions. This choice that I've made — is it really based on what's best for my family, or is it about my own selfish wants? This thing I've said to a friend — is it really coming from a heart that loves and wants to help, or am I trying to bolster my own fragile self-worth by finding a weakness in another?
I know the kind of person I want to be, and I become more aware all the time how far I am from being that person. I still tend to make excuses for my failings — looking outward for the reasons why I can't do the things I dream of or be the person I should be. As I've watched my friend do exactly that over and over, I have become vividly aware of how often I do it too. So I am working hard to catch myself mid-excuse and remind myself that, no, it's not somebody else's fault that I behave the way I do. It's not my circumstances that prevent me from fulfilling my dreams. I choose.
Every moment of every day, I choose how to think, what to say, how to act. No matter how other people or my circumstances might seem to conspire against my dreams, the truth is that I can choose, moment by moment, one step at a time, to keep pressing forward toward becoming the person, and living the life, that I want.
It's painful to admit that my failures are solely my responsibility. Human nature wants to find another explanation — “I want to, but. . . .” But when we stop looking for excuses, when we look deeply and honestly at ourselves and take full responsibility for who and what and where we are, then an amazing thing happens: we realize that we can control those outcomes, because we can change our choices. If I am merely the victim of circumstances and other people, then I am trapped where I am, helpless to ever live the life I dream of. But if it's my own choices that have brought me to a place I don't like, then it's entirely within my power to make different choices and start moving toward the place I want to be.
It is so much easier to judge others than to judge ourselves. But we can't “fix” anybody else, can we? We can love and pray and hope that they'll see the light, but we cannot change another person, so it's a waste of time and energy to focus our attention on what someone else is doing “wrong.” Instead, we each need to learn to see ourselves clearly and then act on what we see. That, my friends, is a full-time task!