The art of fooling oneself


What price happiness?

Bertrand Russell was once asked by a man who was interested in philosophy to recommend some of his books on the subject. Russell did so, and the man returned on the morrow saying that he had read one of them, and had found only one statement – namely ‘Julius Caesar is dead’ – that  he could understand, but which seemed to him false. When asked why he could not agree with the statement, the man drew himself up and said: ‘Because I am Julius Caesar.’

Believing oneself to be Julius Caesar is undoubtedly a medical condition, and anybody who would ever hear the story is sure to laugh at the deluded man. However, there are many slightly less extreme manifestations of this condition that don’t elicit universal mirth as they should. An embarrassingly large number of Pakistanis, for example, are convinced without a shred of credible evidence that a Muslim army is destined to conquer the world in not very distant future!

Delusions come in many shapes, most commonly under the guise of justified national, racial or ethnic pride. It all starts in a benign manner. You would doubtless have heard something like the following self-congratulatory statements exchanged between fellow Pakistanis (I would be a rich man if I had a dollar every time I heard one such remark): ‘There’s nothing quite like Pakistani food;’ ‘1.5 billion strong India can’t produce one Rahat Fateh Ali Khan;’ ‘Pakistanis are the most talented people in the world;’ and ‘Our Coke studio is the last word in music.’ All rather charming nonsense if you ask me, and I dare say you would agree.

But this is harmless stuff, you say? It would be, were it not for the fact that how one forms one’s opinions is a habit. The result is that once patriotic feelings are given free rein like this, there’s no stopping them from crossing into regions that are anything but harmless. Is it any wonder that we have scores of Pakistanis genuinely obsessed with Pakistan’s geostrategic location and geopolitical importance; who are convinced that ours is a God-given country with a special reason for its existence; that our armed forces and intelligence agencies are undoubtedly the best in the world; that when ground realities appear to be at odds with these convictions, it is owing to the conspiracy of a world united against us; and that our ultimate success is guaranteed. It is obvious to all but those that have these convictions that they need to ratchet down their patriotism a notch or two. Enter religion, and many people are convinced, without justification, that they are, to everybody else’s exclusion, God’s chosen ones destined to inherit His Kingdom.  It’s always a good idea to subject all such delusions to constant reality checks. Contemplation, from time to time, of what one (or one’s nation) has actually achieved lately usually has a sobering effect.

National pride and vanity being what they are, the desire on the part of a nation to play a major role in world affairs, or dreams of leading a military alliance, or fantasies of playing a decisive mediatory role between brotherly states is understandable, even if one can easily think of better avenues for a nation’s time and energy.  However, if the nation in question is subsisting on foreign aid for its day-to-day affairs; and if it has been included in said military alliance without its prior knowledge; and if it is struggling to handle security issues within its own borders; it’s obvious that a sizable part of the population is letting patriotism get the better of its good sense.

What if a harmless delusion helps make people happy? Is there something to be said against it in that case? Well, happiness is indeed to be aimed at, but surely not at the cost of sanity. It is doubtful that the man who thought he was Julius Caesar was happy. But even if he was (for the sake of argument), that is not the kind of happiness that any sane person would envy. The same ought to go for ‘lesser’ delusions, which in many cases do bring something like cheer or solace to life. The conquest of the desirable kind of happiness however, must involve looking reality in the face and not shirking it. In this respect delusions come under the same category as drugs, alcohol and porn. Disconnect with reality, in whatever form, is to be avoided as far as humanly possible.

In summary, whether one derives comfort by believing one is Julius Caesar or by contemplating that one’s offspring will ride into some great historical city as conquerors, one must get rid of these crutches – for crutches they undoubtedly are – if one is to attain true freedom and happiness.


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