Much of the damage we do in this world results from our lying to ourselves.
It's inevitable that we'll make some mistake — mishandle our money, enter a rotten marriage, become a religious or political zealot.
But it's another thing to make that same error repeatedly, to never learn from our mistakes and grow beyond them.
Often when people are trapped in a destructive, repetitive pattern, they're trapped because they've never faced the truth about themselves.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
The truth really can set us free. But it's painful.
It's tough to accept responsibility for our failings. It's easier to grow bitter, to chronically blame other people. It's easier to delude ourselves by pretending everything's OK even when it's awful. We have a thousand ways of lying.
None of them solves the underlying issue: us.
Here's a personal example. I spent my early adulthood in poverty.
I dropped out of college at 21, during a deep recession. I married at 22, to my late wife, Renee, who was barely 18. All we were able to find were minimum-wage jobs. Later, I quit my minimum-wage job for one that paid half as much.
Some nights I jumped out of bed at 3 a.m. and grabbed a baseball bat to fight the rats out of our kitchen. The hood of our subcompact car was tied down with baling wire. Sometimes we couldn't buy groceries. It was very bad. For a long, long time.
I blamed Congress, employers who wouldn't pay me what I thought I was worth, my parents for not teaching me how to handle money, God for not supernaturally providing for us.
I had a blame list that stretched from Montgomery County to, oh, paradise.
The list included almost everyone — except me.
Then I finally got sick of being poor. I looked around. A whole lot of people seemed to be faring just fine. Maybe, I thought, they're doing something I'm not.
I set out to discover what that was. I hand-copied and memorized several hundred proverbs from the Bible about wisely managing money. I read books on personal finance. I buttonholed people who had plenty; I'd say to them, "Teach me how you did that."
What I learned was that I'd made nearly every foolish financial decision a human can make. This wasn't a happy revelation. I felt like an idiot. I felt guilty for having put my wife — and by this time, our young son — through years of deprivation.
But I also saw a way out. I could choose to make smart decisions instead of stupid ones.
Changing my habits was so hard, I can't even tell you.
You know what, though? It took 10 years, but increment by increment, we rose from poverty to the middle class to the upper middle class.
I say none of this to brag. I don't look down on poor people. Heck, I've been poor. I know what it's like. Even today, I'm not rich. It never was my goal to become rich. All I wanted was to be able to pay my bills. I wanted not to have to obsess about how I'd survive if the alternator went out on my car. That much I've achieved.
And the central lesson I learned had little to do with money.
It was this: Nothing in my life would get better until I quit lying to myself.
The truth was, my main problem wasn't Congress or my parents or God.
I was my main problem.
But I could change my ways, I decided. I could to some extent control me.
I've tried to keep that in mind ever since. When I find myself enduring some difficulty over and over, my inclination now is to say, "Hey, maybe it's me."
Usually, it is.
It makes me sad when I encounter people who refuse to tell themselves the truth.
Every setback they suffer is somebody else's fault. God isn't fair. The president's a socialist. The Republicans are fascists. All five of their ex-wives were tramps.
From experience, I'd suggest that the biggest favor they could do themselves is to take a long, determined, unflinching look in the mirror — to, as they say in 12-step programs, embark on a searching and fearless moral inventory.
I mean, if you've been married to five consecutive tramps, you might meditate on why you unfailingly fall for people who shouldn't be trusted.
If your last half-dozen bosses have, in your opinion, browbeat and exploited you, you might consider whether you're the productive, reliable employee you assume you are.
If you can't get along with anyone in your whole extended family, you might wonder whether they're all so totally warped, or you are.
If no one in your church is holy enough to meet your high standards, you might reflect on whether you're truly holy yourself, or whether you're just a hyper-critical prig.
The truth might make you free.