That’s the fourth time she’s done it and this time you’re not going to let it pass. Carefully, diplomatically you tell her that she has got to stop insulting you in front of your friends. It’s getting weird. If she has complaints and criticisms, you want her to talk with you about them frankly and privately, rather than attacking you indirectly and publicly.

She listens and then pleasantly, earnestly, as if trying to reassure you, says, “It is not my intent to insult and attack you.  I would never want to do that.”

There. Satisfied?

I didn’t think so.  Or try these:

Your child has a C- minus average, but when you confront him, he most earnestly whines, “But I really want to get good grades!”

Your husband won’t share the housework but when you ask him to help more he says, “I mean to help.  I would never want you to feel our relationship was unfair.”

It’s as if to say, “My intentions are good.  Don’t they count for everything?”  It’s as if to say “I’m a good listener, I’m being agreeable, and I’m on the same page with you. So shut-up because you’re wrong about me. You’re intuitions are unfounded.”

And it’s a natural response we’re all capable of giving, indeed, given how minds work, a response we’re naturally inclined toward giving.

We humans are the world’s first fully bi-mundial species. We live in two worlds, the real and the imagined.  The real is what confronts us physically through our senses–both physical feedback (the brick wall you bump into), and feedback from other people (the C-).

Imagination is a new-fangled ability made possible by our capacity for language, our ability to construct mental word-pictures. Imagination makes us humans preternaturally ambitious, visionary, innovative, entrepreneurial, proactive, delusional, woo-woo, clueless, dangerous, and out of touch. It’s what made Steve Jobs so visionary, and that pompous jerk you know such a total pain in the butt.

Our bi-mundiality is a big, risky evolutionary experiment, and its outcome is very much up in the air.  It’s the source of both what could ruin us (climate chaos, economic folly) and save us (new energy technologies, better economic modeling).

When we bi-mundials are confronted by discouraging real-world evidence, our first inclination is to retreat into our imaginations.  When someone says, “You’re doing harm,” it’s as if we close our eyes to get a second opinion from ourselves about ourselves.

And the likeliest second opinion amounts to:

“Yeah, sorry, I just checked with myself.  I asked myself point blank whether I want to do harm, and nope, you’re wrong.  I aspire to be a good person. My intentions are positive. I looked right at myself and that’s not me. I even checked with myself twice. And I agree with me.”

We naturally or deliberately overlook the complex tensions between our often-conflicting desires.  Your partner genuinely wants to have been nice to you, but that doesn’t always trump her desire to one-up you. You child wants to have gotten good grades, but that doesn’t always trump his desire to watch a lot of TV.  Your husband wants to have helped, but that doesn’t always trump his desire to hang out on the Internet.

One common manifestation of our bi-mundiality is what I call “speaking in the aspirational tense.” We say what we hope will become true as though it’s already true.

For example, an hour ago I threw out my pack of cigarettes, and now I proudly declare, “I quit smoking!” I really mean that I aspire to quit smoking but I say it as though I’m stating established fact.   I say, “I hate cigarettes” as though that’s my only feeling about them. I ignore my other feelings about them, hoping they’ll go away.

The aspirational tense plays out as wishes touted as realities. It’s also present in the way we allow conversations to drift vaguely between our two worlds.  For example:

Q: Are you prejudiced?

A: I hope not. I always try to treat people as equals regardless of race.

This answer changes the subject from whether we’re not prejudiced to whether, in our imaginations, we hope we’re not prejudiced.  We let ourselves get away with this sidestepping a lot.  Think of how often politicians drift between two worlds of action and intent.

Or try:

Q:  Do you ever engage in magical thinking?

A:  I hope not. I always try to be a realist.

This is, in effect lying about lying (“I never lie”), and while that may sound complex it’s as common as our every day use of “No, really!” which translates as “I know you don’t believe me but believe me you should believe me.”

In casual conversation when someone tells a proud story about suffering fools, I’ll sometimes ask “Are you more of a realist than other people?”  The answer is always “Yes.” I have yet to ever get “no” for an answer.

We bi-mundials all employ the aspirational tense to focus on self-flattering intentions instead discouraging realities.  It has its virtues, but since the virtues get much more attention and coverage, (the power of positive thinking, self-affirmation, optimism), here I’m talking about the harm it does. We deflect hard but useful feedback, and meanly, cruelly put other people in double binds, saying “shut up” in the most unassailable way.

Some of us do it more than others.  At the extreme look at Gadhafi who always made clear his earnest intention was to save Libya. I’m arguing that though that’s an extreme, the basic strategy is standard issue. We all do it.

We all do it but some of us know it and, recognizing that it’s a problem are working on it.  I’ve cultivated some counterweights, mantras I try to keep up in my face, to remind me to take my good intentions with heavy blood-pressure-increasing doses of salt, mantras designed to check my tendency to take my word for it:

  • I never do anything for just one reason. It never has just one effect.
  • I wouldn’t put it past me.
  • There go I (not there but for the grace of God go I, but there go I).
  • No matter how much I chase the truth, it will never catch me.
  • What I laugh at on you, I’ll be wearing within the month.

I try to cultivate 180 degree finger pointing, and an ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor.

And that’s why I’m such a realist compared to others 😉