So I had the misfortune of having the radio on this evening, and found myself listening to an interview of Shankar Vedantam.* His schtick is the “hidden brain.” It’s like Freakonomics for sociology and evolutionary biology: a stupid and misunderstood idea that he rides right into the ground. Which is fine, if it weren’t so annoyingly stupid.
His declaration in this interview (well, the one I remember best; I’m sure my brain is hiding the others) was that 50% of marriages end in divorce (where? In America? The world? Since when? Is this even true? Who cares, it sounds “smart,” right?), and yet we get married and figure, at least on our wedding day, that we’ll beat those odds. This is not the “hidden brain” (he’s ridden the rockers off that hobby horse), this is: “Delusional thinking” (also, I understand, the title of his new book). We’re delusional, you see, because we think our marriage will work, when statistics say the odds are against us. (One assumption here is that a marriage that ends in divorce isn’t worth it, and behind that is the idea that “true love” is a delusion. The other is that we are uniformly aware of this statistic. Are we? Well, we have to be; otherwise, how are we deluding ourselves?)
There was more nonsense like this, all about “delusions” that make us love our children “too much” (I was picking up dinner, I heard this in snatches between getting in the car and getting out and getting in again to go home). It’s been true throughout history, he said (“delusional thinking is rooted in human history! It must be true!”). I didn’t stay to listen to how people making the best decisions they know how to make at the time are delusional, or people who care about their children delude themselves about what’s best for their children (apparently we’d know the future perfectly if we weren’t self-deluded). I was stuck on the 50% divorce rate means marriage is a lie we tell ourselves.
His argument there was that we delude ourselves into believing we’ll love one person for the rest of our days. Well, you do, I agree. If, that is, you expect that person to be the same person in 10 years that they were on your wedding day; or in 12, or just 5. You won’t be the same person, either. If you don’t understand that, your marriage may end in divorce. If you don’t work at it, if you don’t confront the obstacles to staying married and work through them and work hard at being married, period; you may end up divorced. Or you’ll just get divorced because the ground beneath you broke apart, because the meteor landed in your marriage and smashed it to bits, because the floodwaters of circumstance washed away everything you cherished and left you so broken all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put you back together again.
No; none of that will happen. You’re just delusional to believe in true love. It’s not that things went so totally to shit that the person you said you’ve love forever suddenly turned into your enemy, or you were so damaged by circumstances you couldn’t continue what you’d started 20 years earlier, or that you came to hate yourself so much you couldn’t love another anymore. No; you were delusional on your wedding day. See how simple that is?
Or none of this happened, and you managed to stay married because you are two responsible adults who love each other and manage, despite the worst life throws at you, to remain together through it all, and you’re damned glad, in the end, that you did. Are you also delusional? I’m not sure. Ask Shankar.
Of course, the very logic of this “argument” is bullshit. 100% of us are mortal and doomed to die; but we go on living, and we go on bringing new people into this world who are also going to die; and we go on doing our dead-level damndest to stay alive anyway, and for as long as we can manage. Are we delusional? Well, not from birth. There the analogy breaks down. But soon enough we wrestle with the truth that we, too, are mortal. It’s not delusional to think so. It’s delusional not to. Those who refuse that reality are the problem, in countless new and terrible and hilarious and heartbreaking ways. The rest of us get on with it, under no delusion whatsoever. But what hope do we have? Death is a 100% certainty. Divorce is only (per Shankar’s statistics, where ever they come from) 50% certain. Isn’t it more delusional to think we should stay alive as long as possible, death being inevitable? I mean, at least we have a chance in marriage. We have no chance of not dying.
We have chances of loss and pain and error and being completely wrong about the future or the outcome of our actions (how we love our children is delusional! Shankar said so!). Why not cut to the chase and declare the whole enterprise of life a delusion? That’s where his “reasoning” goes, anyway. Right?
Like Freakonomics: a small, bad kernel of an idea that seems to explain everything, but is itself actually the source of delusion. I remember Vedantam on NPR (no longer, thank the lords and the low creatures! Or I'm just not listening enough anymore. One of the two.) claiming to bring us the insights of sociology in reports that clearly betrayed his thesis and put his lack of understanding on full display. Vedantam is as illuminating as a fog. His thoughts are little wisps of clouds that don’t even coalesce into a cloud bank. He seeks a simple explanation, and then tries to pound every round and triangular and hexagonal and especially amorphous idea into that round hole, all to prove himself the master with the answers. It’s farcical. It is, in fact, and in the last irony (but not at all, because isn’t that always the way it is?): delusional.
He thinks he understands. He thinks he explains. But the only explanation that makes any sense is: he’s delusional. He thinks he’s wise and clever. But his words mean nothing, and his ideas lead nowhere.
*the pity is, I like Kris Boyd’s show. Well, they can’t all be winners.
Having looked it up, I remember now the idea of “useful delusions.” Again, as insightful as an eyepatch. The basis of the “idea” is that we fool ourselves because we need to. But do we? Or do we just make the best decisions we can at the time, and the future makes a hash of them and we feel like we should have known better? (After 65 years of living, I’m inclined to think we do what we can with what we have, and are better living in the moment that way, than thinking our decisions will decide our true happiness for the next 20 years.) Hindsight is always 20/20, but is hindsight always right? If I love my daughter, and yet make what turns out to be a bad decision about raising her, an error on just one day that has repercussions for decades, is that decision delusion on my part? Is it a failure to pierce the veil of the future? Or is it just life? If I could, am I really capable of calculating all of the outcomes of my every decision every moment of the day, chasing them down the time lines like Dr. Strange in “Infinity War,” finding the only hope of success out of hundreds of millions of failures? No; and thinking you could if you just would, is what is delusional. After all, if my marriage ends in divorce, was I delusional to marry on my wedding day? Or did I make a mistake that broke my marriage irreparably, years later? Is life really a series of inevitable consequences arising from actions made in the past? And when do the consequences of childhood or adolescence stop playing out? When do the dominoes of one decision in your life time stop falling in the rest of your life? Is that the way it works? Or is thinking life can be known that way, delusional?
What he’s saying, ultimately, is that happiness is a delusion. We are happy because we delude ourselves. Having learned the hard way, the way of experience and loss and pain and suffering, that true happiness is anything but, I have to think Vedantam’s ideas are the delusions. He sounds like a man trying to convince himself he’s too smart to be truly happy. That’s a sad delusion, indeed.