There’s a passage by the best-selling author and philosopher, Alain de Botton, that makes me laugh like … well, “like a parent on the opening night of a school play.”
… my priority was to be liked, rather than speak the truth. A desire to please led me to laugh at modest jokes like a parent on the opening night of a school play. With strangers, I adopted the servile manner of a concierge greeting wealthy clients in a hotel … I sought the approval of figures of authority and after encounters with them, worried at length whether they had thought me acceptable. When passing through customs or driving alongside police cars, I harboured a confused wish for the uniformed officials to think well of me.*
Priceless. I see myself as an seven-year-old walking down the street in a new dress with my mother and sister, holding my sister’s hand for once, preening and thinking to myself “Everyone will think we’re so good.” Or my father, driving the five of us, telling us to “sit up straight” as we passed a police car.
Wanting people to think well of us, wanting to look good, is universal, fundamental and the root of much anxiety and difficulty. It was running the show in a story I heard yesterday.
A writer was invited to speak at a conference about happiness and its “causes”. For some time leading up to the event he was worried because he did not feel happy. How was he going to speak on happiness to 1,000 people when he was feeling unhappy?
The event went ahead and he spoke on this and that, and did not come clean that he was struggling. A little while later he did come clean, though not with the original audience. He confessed to his blog audience instead, and his unhappiness over the lie was still palpable.
His story has a number of interesting angles. You can look at it from the angle of integrity. From everything this man has written in the past, the absence of integrity will be eating him alive. It also vividly demonstrates our desire to look good. It was so strong in him, as it is in all of us, that it overrode his desire to be honest, even though honesty is what he regards as the “calling card” of all his writing. Do you get that? His desire to look good at the conference – his desire to be seen as a happy person – trumped what most mattered to him, the very essence of his identity. Small wonder he’s feeling miserable.
There are a number of things he can do to restore his sense of self, but that’s a post for another day.
Consider that true freedom, true peace of mind, happiness even, lies in giving up our desire to look good.
* Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy