In the last post, An Introduction to Phoniness, I wrote about my views of phoniness and how I believe it to be a form of self-ignorance. Rather than actually not knowing information, however, it is more accurately described as a willed ignorance, a purposeful bending of self into a false personality despite one’s own convictions. In this post, I will write about the emotional response to phoniness observed in others. The third post of the series will then investigate the practical response to phoniness, in both ourselves and others, from a Christian point of view.
The Emotional Response to Phoniness
I tend to feel contempt and anger towards phoniness. Contempt because it is unclear if the person can be trusted or enjoys habitual lying to keep their own interests; because they find it worth being someone else rather than embracing who they, whether that true self is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There is a degree of respect to be had for the villain who recognizes that he is the bad guy. As such, there is also respect for the person who recognizes his or her own faults. Whether or not the person then does anything with this self-awareness will determine how long that respect lasts. Anger is derived from the idea that this person may reject good and objectively better paths, squander opportunity and throw away positive relationships to pursue their own, idolized reality. It stems from the same area of the brain that makes me mad at illogical people in horror movies. Although anger and contempt may arise first, they give way to a degree of sadness and compassion which ultimately influence the behavior towards phoniness.
Perhaps the person doesn’t realize how destructive their path can be. This is a return to a true ignorance. I feel sad for the one who falls into true ignorance, though there are very few that can actually claim this. Anger and contempt only arise from the willful actions of people who understand the consequences. But maybe they do not know better ways; the person who is choosing a destructive path simply because they do not know that it is a destructive path. Pain over peace. Emptiness over fulfillment. Death over life. The thought fills me with sorrow. It is as if they take one medicine to prevent a certain problem only to learn that the medicine they thought they could trust is giving them a much worse disease. The contempt is then unable to produce a cold shoulder or scornful stare and the anger is unable to produce a fist or raise the voice. Any emotion yields to the flow of tears and heart-felt pain produced by the sorrow and compassion.
But question someone’s identity and you, in their view, question the very essence of who they are. We set up strong defensive systems around our personalities and even the slightest breath of critique or disagreement is enough to sound the alarm. This is merely the start of the momentous rush of thoughts resulting in actions that will potentially isolate you from that person. Occasionally, we meet someone who welcomes criticism and is able to see themselves for who they are, but this is a rare exception. Returning to Lewis, I recall a number of conversations between ghosts and spirits in The Great Divorce where people grasp to their identities with a relentless grip. Because of this, they cannot hold anything else. Unless presented with the possibility of and identity with a higher purpose, why would anyone want to lose their seemingly real identity? Why would anyone without a worthy cause die to self, as Christians tend to word it, which is directly involved in the process of giving up parts of our identity?
With this in mind, one shouldn’t expect anything less than a mild degree of phoniness from people. The people you meet and pass on the street most likely aren’t fully who they are or seem to be. You would know them for certain if you could see which ones cry themselves to sleep silently so other do not hear or see. Which ones smile and laugh with friends and then breathe out subtle curses under their breath as soon as they walk away. Which ones are invited to parties and are surrounded by the people they know but feel empty and alone.
The response then, through these different emotions should not be to judge the people who we meet every day. Everyone has a degree of phoniness. Everyone has problems. Anger, contempt and judgment do nothing to remedy this situation. Compassion and understanding do. It is in compassion and understanding that the strong and cold walls of isolation are brought down and we are able to show ourselves to each other in honesty and love.
Make sure to watch for the next post in which I will talk about the Christian response to phoniness in others and, more importantly, in ourselves.
Sources from this post