Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
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I am an optimist. And not just your average glass-is-half-full kind of optimist either. I am the glass-is-overflowing type.

I’m not sure where it came from exactly. My family are not particularly noted for either their pessimism or optimism, so it’s not likely that it stemmed from that (although I acknowledge it was not prevented either). My mother is still fond of reminding me that things always happen for a reason. And while there’s a thread of optimism to that, it’s more about maintaining faith that our challenges are not in vain.

In my own practice of optimism, I take it a level further. I go to the creative effort of slightly deluding myself about things I don’t yet know. I fill in the gaps with something good. If I’m later shown to have been wrong, no biggie. I’d prefer to use my creativity to get over disappointments than for trying to prevent them. The former is a regularly useful skill; the latter is pointless.

The word “delude” is not an optimistic one. It means to intentionally deceive. It has a long record of harm in uses meant to mock, to play, even secretly ridicule. But that’s actually part of the purpose of my using it here. As a foundation of my optimism, I am selectively constructively, hopefully misleading myself about the proper use of the word “delude” to take away its power. (For the record, I use the words “selfish” and “revenge” in exactly the same way.)

Is it possible to lie to oneself? Of course. We do it every day. But can deceit be constructive? Yes. But it depends upon intent.

How does this configure with optimism, you might ask? Ultimately, I’m playing around with a natural human phenomenon known as confirmation bias as a tool for experiencing a better life.

Confirmation bias is a term that is used to describe our natural tendency to look at the world in ways that confirm our existing world view. If we believe that people are horrible and irredeemable, we will consciously (and subconsciously) be on the lookout for every shred of evidence that proves our point. We end up moving through our daily lives on the constant lookout for horrible people so that we may say, “See! I told you!”

What state of mind does that encourage overall? What is the daily stress level of one who is constantly collecting proof of humanity’s darker nature? It can’t feel good. It can’t be healthy. And as it says in Luke, does worry ever add a day to one’s life? Nope.

But what if you saw things differently on purpose? What if you elected to be a bit more scientific and empirical about your approach to life? Because I have a bit of non-fake news for you. Factually, there are more good people in the world than bad. Factually, we are safer than we realize. We are healthier than we are sick. We are smarter than we are dumb. We love more than we hate. Historically, we are more peaceful now than at any point in the human timelime since the dawn of agriculture. Why not consider these when choosing how to determine the level of water in the glass?

I practice something referred to as constructive delusion. I constructively choose to see the best of all possible options occurring. I constructively choose to see the best in people and their intentions. I’ll look at what’s around me with a belief that benevolence, however improbable, is at work. Even in the darkest of moments, I believe, without reservation, that the potential for good exists inherently within the core of the experience. Even the darkest nights of the soul exist with an expectation of the coming dawn.

Am I lying to myself? Yes. Because in truth I don’t know what’s to come. I don’t know if benevolence is really at work. I don’t even know if there is a God, but I believe in the existence of It nonetheless. Is my belief in God a constructive delusion? Fully. Even the most ardent of atheists, however, could not convince me that I am being done a harm by my belief in It. Likewise, I could not prove to an atheist whether or not harm is befalling them either.

So what’s the harm in a bit of self-delusion when the only result is that I just might notice a good path in the midst of an array of bad ones, simply because my belief in their existence predisposed me to noticing it? Does the lie then become a truth? Or is the truth (that was always there) revealed in the process of believing I would have to “lie” to myself a bit in order to get it? Thought-provoking questions, these.

It could be seen as a fake-it-till-you-make-it way of looking at life, and I suppose that’s fair. Anyone could choose to bristle at the words “lie” and “delude” and deem them to be a fool’s path toward salvation. But I will save them the trouble. Because the intent matters. My intention is not only to feel better, but also to see better. My choice is to recognize the patterns of good that exist in all things. Because then I never miss a single good thing as it passes.

And if I see more good things, I am allowing my confirmation bias to attract more notice of these good things. I am effectively deluding myself with the truth. I am assuaging the darker part of my psyche that’s always on the lookout for a lie by giving it one to gnaw on for a while to slowly get used to the taste of truth. It takes time.

The truth is that we are not doing so bad, we humans. We’re messy as hell, but we’re loving. Even when we hate, we still love. Hate is fake. It’s a nonconstructive delusion. But even hate has benevolence locked within it.

Make that assumption and watch and wait. You’ll see that lie become the truth, too.

Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. is also the Founding Director of the Tribe Mentorship Project. Email wildarcangelo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His weekly column and blog on optimistic spirituality in the Information Age, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.