I used to assume that if I thought I was happy I must be happy. Then the possibility of self-deception entered my head. This line from the song The Bridge by Scott Walker illustrates it quite well:
At night the people’s faces danced
Like pearls colliding on the breast
Of fat Marie whose thunder laugh
Was just a thread from crying
Was I just a thread from crying? Probably not but neither was I completely transparent to myself.
That we spend a lot of our time deceiving ourselves had never really occurred to me. But then I thought back to all the times I had continued to go to discos, despite disliking them. And all those New Year’s Eve’s parties in noisy, smoky pubs. I also used to visit cathedrals and old buildings when I was on a sightseeing holiday, even though I wasn’t in cathedrals, old buildings or sightseeing in general.
None of this sunk in until the day I was cycling along the Irish coast. I came to a car park where two bus-loads of old Japanese women tourists had just spilled off their tour bus and were now listening to their Irish guide telling them about Tristan and Isolde or some such. The Yoko Ono lookalikes gazed out at the Irish coast to where the guide was pointing or those who could understand nothing and had done with pretending they could just chatted with each other. My guess is that none of them knew, nor cared, who Tristan and Isolde were. I certainly didn’t. At that moment I thought, ‘What are they doing here? What am I doing here?’
Thereafter I started wondering if there were other things I did just through unthinking habit. Did I really prefer my own company or was that just something I told myself to avoid embarrassing myself? Did I only think I liked certain things because I had drawn the confines of my world so narrowly. Was I like a citizen North Korea, unaware of what lies beyond his huge prison?
The warning voice that tells us we might be deceiving ourselves strikes me as being both a blessing and a curse. It can motivate us to go out into the world to check we aren’t missing something wonderful. The downside is that even when we encounter something that makes us happy we start to doubt it. Do I really like it or am I just kidding myself again?