That’s Men: Valuable lesson I learned from an easy assumption


Word comes from across the sea (I won’t say which one) of the death of an academic who, in his day, was characterised by a degree of arrogance that some people, myself included, found insufferable.

In his eyes, the world was made up of two kinds of people: the ones who agreed with his views and who were, therefore, right; and those who deviated from them and who were irredeemably wrong.

He wasn’t a high-flyer in the world of academia; he had stepped on too many toes for that. However, I learned a lesson – not from him but because of him – that I have never forgotten.

I remarked to a group of fellow students one evening that our lecturer was obviously an insecure man. Unfortunately, we had a philosophy student among us and soon I was backed into a corner trying to explain what I meant by “obviously”, what I meant by “insecure”, what my evidence was for my statement, and so forth.

The philosopher’s point
In the end I had to admit – although only to myself because the conversation had been diverted by the others on to the more important topic of football – that the philosopher had a point.

I had made the easy mistake that someone of whose personality I disapproved must be unhappy in some way. In fact, there was no reason to believe that our arrogant academic felt in any way insecure.

There must be a good chance that he went through life basking in his belief in his own superiority and that he died a satisfied man. Satisfied with himself, that is, and how many of us can say as much?

But perhaps I am not alone in my presumption. For instance, don’t many of us like to believe that the rich and famous are not really happy? A belief bolstered by the hot water that some get themselves into?

We gleefully point to research that shows the rich are not significantly happier than the rest of us. What that means, though, is that the rich are not more unhappy than us either, on average. They are just richer, which probably has a lot of benefits.

Another example: those of us who are a bit neurotic tend to like that phrase, attributed to Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. We can stand aloof from the fun and games that entertain those who lead unexamined lives while consoling ourselves with the idea that their lives are boring and empty.

But are we right? Is it not possible that people with “unexamined” lives have quite a satisfactory time, thank you, and that they are all the happier for enjoying their fun, games and rituals without spending their time pondering what it all means?

Perhaps we seek to console ourselves by assuming that those who have an abundance of the things we want (self-belief, money and uncomplicated pleasures, for instance) are actually worse off than we are.

When we all believed in heaven and hell, things got evened up in the next life. You might be miserable and virtuous while sinners partied, but at least you had the grim satisfaction of knowing they would pay for it all on the other side.

As the belief in old-time religion declines, we must resort instead to a form of psychological hellfire in which the successful are, actually, failures, the rich are poor and the self-assured are insecure, if only they knew it. It sounds silly when put like that but this delusional belief system at least keeps us content with our lot enough of the time. Moreover, it gives us someone to look down on, and that’s always a comfort.

The alternative is to see ourselves as we really are. That’s unlikely to catch on, I think. So we are stuck with delusion. But if heaven and hell really do exist, I have no doubt my arrogant academic strode straight through the pearly gates and no one had the nerve to stop him.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living , is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email .

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