Live by the harmless untruths that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. — Kurt Vonnegut.
Ah yes, the little white lie. I’m all for it. You’re haircut looks great! The party was a blast! No, I don’t mind doing you a favor at all!
Life is indeed nicer with harmless untruths like those.
But this quote also makes an argument for what I think of as benign denial.
I grew up in a family mired in unhealthy denial, which convinced me that denial must be avoided at all costs. Denial can be a terrible problem. It keeps people in unhealthy relationships, reassures them that lung cancer only happens to other people, causes financial ruin, and all kinds of other bad things.
But there are other kinds of denial that are no big deal.
Maybe we convince ourselves we are gifted and nobody sees it yet, which keeps us out there swingin’. Or we see ourselves as more attractive than we are, objectively, which gives us self-confidence that translates into attractiveness. Maybe we deny the fact that most writers don’t have bestsellers and keep writing books, believing every one will be a bestseller. (Who, me?) A lot of books get written under that delusion, and that’s a good thing.
And then there’s a lesson that’s proving difficult for me: The wisdom of benign denial of some problems. Or maybe I should say “problems,” since problems are in the eye of the beholder.
This is partly a product of a change of environment: Nearly 30 years ago I moved from New York City to Dallas, Texas–from the let it all hang out Northeast to the if you can’t say something nice South.
Perhaps the cultural adjustment I’ve struggled with most is learning that I don’t actually have to say everything that pops into my head, even if it seems ever-so important. (My friends are all nodding in agreement.) Not every problem must be brought to light and picked apart.
Sure, I can analyze my own problems all I want. I have the right to ruminate, and rumination is among my hobbies.
But sometimes, that’s as far as it needs to go. Some things don’t need fixing. Some “problems” aren’t problems at all, or aren’t bad enough to worry about, or will unravel themselves if you give them time and space.
Sometimes it’s kinder to sit quietly and see if things smooth themselves out rather than dragging out dirty laundry and waving it around. Sometimes it’s braver to see what happens rather than trying to take control and possibly making things worse. Trying to bend life to your will is stressful and unhealthy, and it makes everybody involved unhappy.
The harmless untruths I am learning to tell myself are that I’m fine, just fine, with not trying to fix things. That I believe everything is going to be OK without my intervention. That I think people are perfectly capable of working out their own problems their own way.
Understand: It’s 100 percent true that I don’t have to fix things. And that everything will be OK without my intervention. And that people are capable of handling their own problems.
The untruth, at the moment, is that I believe all this and that I’m fine with it.
Believing I know best and have the power to fix everything is a harmful untruth I have told myself, and it’s caused all kinds of problems for me over the years.
It’s time to replace that with a harmless untruth: I truly believe the world can function without my help.
If I keep telling myself that, maybe it will actually be true someday.
Photo by Geoffrey Fairchild via Flickr (Creative Commons).
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Last reviewed: 17 Jul 2012