Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Do humans change? I find myself constantly revisiting this question. On principle, my answer is yes. Anecdotally, my answer is a little more muddled. I have no doubt in our ability to change. The sundry stories of real-life heroes beating the odds almost always involve that elusive event — change. Is change an event though? More likely it’s something that moves, transforms, and continues. Change is a process. While we most certainly have the aptitude to change — much quicker than we even realize — we overwhelmingly choose not to. For all of the opportunity that lay before us, humans tend not to make enduring change for the better all that much.
There is more in this one question than I have the ability to speak to, but I would like to point out part of the human experience that is an obstacle to change. It’s lying. Or, perhaps more accurately for many of us, it’s deception. Yes, deception has a much softer tone to it. Deception is not blatantly taking the truth and ringing its neck, but rather hiding it in the broom closet under the stairs without feeding it for days, months, years. Deception puts Truth out of sight, out of mind, although alive — somewhere.
You see, we all participate in deception. Again and again, psychiatrists, sociologists, and economists alike have proved that humans are horrendously unaware creatures. Studies show that we constantly overestimate or underestimate our own abilities. In other words, we misestimate. We “miss the mark”. All the time. These little deceptions about ourselves lead us to arrive late to events, spend too much time on our phones, not communicate with our families, gain weight, develop addictive habits, and eventually destroy relationships. Yes, I believe that self-deception is the seed of the vast majority of problems in our daily lives.
Defined as the misrepresentation of truth, social media is perhaps the best example of deceit. We see manicured versions of everyone’s lives. Our primitive brain that is wired to handle small-scale tribal social interaction now must deal with thousands of scrubbed-up pictures of clean houses and perfect vacations. Even the posts that are “real” or “gritty” seem like another ploy from the Deceit playbook. What’s worse is that we willingly give ourselves right back to the illusion with our own altered-truth. These are ostensibly small deceptions, but notable. Is it any coincidence that social media is one of the strongest links to perhaps the defining challenge of my generation which is a massive leap in depression/suicide rates?
A recent — and highly recommended — watch gives us further insight into the danger of deception. The HBO series Chernobyl starts with a quote that chills to the core. Valery Legasov, director of the Kurchatov institute sent in to aid cleanup efforts, sums up the root of the immense tragedy by saying “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.” While the connection to the horrors of the Soviet information network is obvious, this is a universal principle.
We can hide things from ourselves, we can hide things from our families, and we can hide things from our bosses. As a man of faith, I would argue that nothing can be hidden from God, whose eternal promise of justice is what makes this clock tick. However, faith aside, pretending that truth is a lie and lies are the truth is a proven way to destroy ourselves. Because, eventually, the “debt is paid”. In our personal lives that payment oftentimes comes in the form of personal anguish, job loss, divorce, or broken relationships.
What makes these deceptions so difficult is that what starts as a misrepresentation of the truth becomes a representation of the truth in our minds. We begin to fight for something as if it were the truth. Axioms that look like a beautiful building are built upon the sandy foundation of deception. Most of the time it’s not even malicious. The other day, I was telling a story to a group of friends and my sister. My sister looked at me and said “that happened to me”. I stopped and thought about it. She was right. For some reason my brain had taken that story and simply made it my own. But I believed it to the point where I had engineered a memory. This is an anecdotal example to be sure, but think about how this type of behavior affects us. We oftentimes believe we said something we didn’t, acted in a way we didn’t, or are a way we aren’t. Imagine an engineer believing that iron is stronger than steel, or a rancher that believes a dog is a cow. You can believe what you want, but eventually the structurally unsound building will collapse and the dog will not give milk.
“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
This brings us full circle. Why don’t we change? We don’t change because we lie to ourselves and to others. We wallow in our deceptions, and then wonder why we can’t lose weight, or why we aren’t happy in our relationship, or why everyone is out to get us. It is a dangerous cycle that affects everyone. In the words of Elder M Russel Ballard “Of all the distinguished failures, those who deserve the least sympathy are the ones who gather in foolish little cliques, praise each other, deceive each other, criticize others, and fool themselves.”
In my mind, the journey to awareness comes from 3 angles. Excuse another reference to my faith, but perhaps it is useful in this context. First, we must understand how our Heavenly Father sees us. How does a loving God that understands our infinite potential as “moral units” see us? Second, we must understand how we see ourselves. What do we believe about ourselves, our abilities, and our purpose? Third –least important of the three, but still valuable – we must understand how others see us. How are we perceived? As we answer each of these questions for ourselves, we become aware of who we are and ultimately, who we can become. Thus, in the socratic line of thought, awareness is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the beginning of change.
Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.
More Thrive Global on Campus: