8: Making Misery Permanent

The human mind has a wonderful capacity to explore for new knowledge and create new methods for driving back the boundaries of ignorance. The inventiveness of the mind has led to countless improvements in the way we live, travel, communicate, and provide for our mutual comfort.

There are, however, darker applications for our creativity. We can also invent marvelous rationalizations to protect and defend falsehoods and excuse failure. We can twist reason to justify why we have no further responsibility for our success and well-being. The denial of personal faults or mistakes poses little problem for those of us who are adept at inventing reasons for our innocence.

Welcome to the world of self-deception and artful rationalization that will protect and preserve all our faults, bad habits, and dark moods.

Psychologists refer to this capacity as resistance. That is, we build up a set of beliefs to help us avoid dealing with our mistakes and dysfunctional habits. Our resistance to truth and accurate evaluations are key factors that blind us to our faulty attitudes and distorted thinking. This can become a major obstacle for personal reform and healing changes in our personality and lifestyle. By justifying our pessimism, rationalizing our distrust, and supporting our grievances we inhibit our assertiveness, diminish our creativity, and destroy our mental health. Unless we restrain and transform these attitudes and beliefs, they will cause us much harm and limit all our human and divine potentials.

Unfortunately, the damage done by ignoring our faults and denying the truth about our behavior is not limited to a few mistakes. The long-term effect of persistent or recurring guilt, disappointment, resentment, and anxiety can be corrosive to our character. Like a figurative cancer, these forces can eat away at our confidence, cheerfulness, and competence. And like a malignant tumor, these dark habits and moods will drain vitality and power from the rest of our personality to sustain themselves—even if this produces profound damage to relationships, careers, and physical health.

This deterioration does not occur overnight. Nor do we choose it consciously—yet it does happen. Any intelligent person would wonder why we think and behave in these dysfunctional and unhealthy ways. No one wants to be a failure or miserable. No one sets out to plot a deliberate course to achieve defeat and misery for themselves. So how can these event happen?

Destructive habits are created by our unlimited capacity to rationalize and make excuses. Time and again, very intelligent and not so intelligent people invent “constructive uses” for anger, fear, sadness, guilt, selfishness, dishonesty, and indifference. For instance, we can decide that our guilt about the stupid things we have done or said will strengthen our ability to monitor any lapses in our behavior. Guilt will also be an “appropriate punishment” for having done bad things. Therefore, our guilt serves to keep us human.

Our fears are justified by reviewing all the reasons why we absolutely must avoid failure, rejection, and criticism. Once we know about our enemies and where threats may lie, we are better able to avoid them. Our fears will serve a protective function and alert us to danger. Therefore, our fears help to preserve our safety.

Our anger is justified because we assume it makes us strong. Our anger, we presume, is a reasonable and necessary response to the injustice, insults, and abuse we suffer. In addition, our bursts of rage can force others to notice us and make them do what we want. From all these “benefits” of anger, we can conclude that we need it to force the reform and correction of bad situations. Therefore, our anger serves to protect our dignity and security.

Our sadness is justified because it demonstrates our sensitivity and ability to care. After all, good people are supposed to care deeply about fellow sufferers and tragedy. When we are hurt, it demonstrates that we have important values that, when violated, cause us much distress. Our disappointment is the cutting edge of our ability to notice the faults in people, the corruption in society, and the failures in our government, schools, and business communities. Sadness makes us more compassionate and caring.

The little problem with these rationalizations is that they are all false and destructive. Instead of serving our well-being and success, these dark moods destroy our ability to act assertively, think boldly, and engage our day with enthusiasm. If we surrender to the appeal of these deceptive ways of justifying dark moods and beliefs, we will inevitably embrace every possible avenue for psychic self-destruction.

While it can be extremely easy to justify resentment, disappointment, or anxiety, it is not so simple to recognize how these dark energies can accumulate in our subconscious. From there they can spread to contaminate our core beliefs, motives, and expectations—without us being aware of it. Slowly, the darkness of resentment, fear, and gloom will diminish the light of our optimism and love of life. Our humanity will shrink to the dimensions of the smallness of our fears and discouragement.

The net result is that we embed our anger in a hostile attitude about everything. Our discouragement will saturate our self-concept with defeatist attitudes. Our fears will contaminate all our plans and compel us to lower our expectations and weaken our efforts. These dark moods behave like cancers that metastasize into every corner of our convictions, values, core beliefs, and habits. From there, their influence becomes self-sustaining and repetitive. Once we come to believe we are weak and inadequate, we will pass up many good opportunities. We will have little enthusiasm for our daily activities. We may even experience genuine success in important ways, but we will not be able to fully enjoy them or accept them as evidence of our competence, strength, and virtue. The key process that converts an unpleasant event into a wound that can scar us forever lies in how we interpret and react to it. We can use our life experiences to educate us about what promotes success, what leads to failure, what to avoid, what to do, and how to do it. Or we can use our experiences to underscore our belief that life is too difficult, and we are always going to be unlucky and miserable. We can respond to an insult or injustice by choosing to repair this rela- tionship, or we can retreat into sulking and blaming.

When we are disappointed about a personal failure or the behavior of others, we can become more determined than ever to try again, use better meth- ods, and persevere. Or, we can resign ourself to defeat and expect to fail again.

These are the choices we make.

Our misery becomes permanent when we use guilt to generate criticism and condemnation for ourself. Making mistakes in life is a universal experience that we cannot avoid, but how we respond to them can lead to growth of insight and abilities, or they can lead to endless self-criticism. We can belittle our intelligence, skills, and strength. We can obsess on each failure and setback and convert these mistakes into “the unpardonable sin.” Once we do this, we will probably do it again. This is how we guarantee that we make our suffering a constant part of our character and life.

Our misery becomes permanent when we allow our disappointment to slide into a belief that we are a failure in many areas. A setback or loss can be very discouraging, but how we process it can lead to new creative behavior—or to permanent defeat. When we conclude that our failure or loss is due to an irreversible weakness, we diminish our confidence in our ability to learn and grow. While there are some natural limits to our skill and knowledge, there is always the possibility that we can grow beyond those limits—or at least try to move around them. Other people ignore these possibilities and just give up, making defeat a constant part of life.

Our misery becomes permanent when we begin to blame others for our difficulties and choose constant resentment of our perceived enemies instead of tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness. Bad things happen to all of us, and yes, bad people exist in every culture. We can accept these facts and work out a way to avoid the worst and tolerate what we must, or we can “declare war” against our perceived enemies. By putting all the blame on others, we also shift all responsibility for healing the conflict on people and circumstances we have already declared to be our enemies. This is not a smart choice, and it usually leads to endless resentment and recriminations.

Our misery becomes permanent when we choose to allow our fears to define who we are and set limits on what we can or cannot do. In any one life, all sorts of events can threaten our security and happiness. However, if our dominant way of processing these threats is to withdraw or seek escape, we will never be free of major recurring fits of anxiety. Anxiety will dominate our attitudes and beliefs. Our major urge in life will be to avoid current and future disasters. When we commit ourself to a defensive lifestyle, we are making our anxiety a major part of our character. This is how we make suffering inevitable.

Our misery becomes permanent when we decide that our life is too difficult and requires too much work and sacrifice. When we feel entitled to an easy life that is relatively free of struggle or hardship, we are committing ourself to endless frustration. If we insist on finding special shortcuts to success and the “easy way” to wealth and happiness, we guarantee permanent disappointment. Our impatience will continually cause us to reject good ideas and opportunities and also repel the support of those who could help us. When we become phobic to hard work, we end up spending excessive time in indulging our fantasies and grumbling about our difficulties. This is how we sabotage our well-being.

It is imperative that we learn to make better choices. Even after learning about these bad choices, most people still do not realize the severity of their mistakes. Instead, they see only huge obstacles to change and assume they have no option other than giving up. Once wounded by enormous emotional, physical, or financial suffering, they often decide that they never want to risk such devastation again—not realizing this choice guarantees a mediocre life that still is not free of disappointment.

While pain and suffering afflict everyone, we always have choices about how to deal with our distress. Too often we fail to appreciate our creative capacity to find new ways to promote ourself and our well-being. We fail to mobilize all of our strengths and resources to try again in the recognition that a temporary failure need not become a permanent defeat—at least not until we embrace defeat. If we apply clear thinking, we will always discover something to rescue from our failures. There are always insights we can learn from our defeats so that the next time we encounter similar circumstances, we will be prepared to be more successful.

It is skill, knowledge, courage, and other virtues that help us create new success in our life. These strengths are acquired by our persistent efforts to engage opportunities, survive crisis, and resolve conflicts. This is how we summon and work with our human and divine potentials to overcome misery and achieve much success in our life.

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