A foolish consistency

“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

But why should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place? Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? […]

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. […] Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

I used to hate that quote because it’s misquoted (the “foolish” part is frequently ommitted) and used to justify self-contradictory or nonsensical beliefs. But I can no longer deny the power of Emerson’s observation that the need to be consistent is a prison, because we change, we are wrong, the world changes, and we don’t always understand how it all fits together.

A foolish consistency doesn’t help us connect with out true beliefs, but what it does do is make us look reliable, or at least predictable, to other people. This is why Emerson says consistency is “adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” people who need to project an image to their followers and call others out on violations of their self-images. This is often perfectly rational. For example, voters want to know who they are voting for now to lead them later, so they need to be able to assess later behavior based on behavior now. But unfortunately this logic extends to all situations in which potential partners assess each others’ likely future behavior, which is a lot of human interaction. In fact, trying to entice or manipulate other people into allying with us might have fundmentally shaped our social minds. So it’s understandable that most of us elect to project an image of consistency at all times and in all circumstances, even to ourselves, and be outraged by hypocrisy. Generally we believe our own bluff. Some call it ego.

I read a lot about Buddhism and listen to a lot of dharma talks, and it seems to me that ego itself could be boiled down to “a foolish consistency.” They say enlightenment is submitting to death each moment (not “dragging around the corpse of your memory,” so to speak), so that each new moment is fully experienced on its own terms. You can’t do that if you’re bound to the way you’ve experienced things in the past, and especially not if you’re bound to certain ideas about who you are.

I’ve experienced how confining the need to be consistent is in a few ways. I lost my faith (raised Episcopalian) as a teenager and talked a pretty big game about atheism. Part of me had always felt left out and angry about not “getting” a lot of biblical and spiritual teachings at church, and when I realized that most of the adults didn’t literally believe in a lot of it, I was incensed. When I did start experiencing some of the things they were talking about, like church having spiritually/psychologically meaningful stories completely apart from whether their surface, literal content was true, I was horrified and did not want to admit it. I hadn’t had those experiences when I was younger, so I couldn’t have known before– I didn’t even do anything wrong!– but I couldn’t bear to be inconsistent with the way I acted before. I felt like I had a contract with everyone else that I would always have the same views, and the only way to acknowledge I was wrong was to suffer from private feelings of worthlessness. For years, it felt like there was no way to admit to myself that I knew more now and change my mind short of utter humiliation and defeat.

Similarly, for years after I got ill, I punished myself by trying to stick to the beliefs I had about the illness before it happened to me. I knew better after actually experiencing it, but I didn’t think I could just change my mind out of convenience like that, and I didn’t want to make past me wrong. I was stubborn enough that this lasted years– years of suffering from denying what I so clearly felt– and all the while I was proud of myself for my stubborness and resistance, because it made me consistent with a memory that no longer existed. (“[B]ecause the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.”)

In these cases and so many others, it seemed that to be consistent was to be a valid and legitimate person, so giving the old self-image up by admitting inconsistency felt like dying. But to keep up a false self-image, you must deny the reality of your experience, which is a kind of death by failure to live. Something’s gotta give, and I’m glad that for me it was a foolish consistency.

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