This morning MSN.com features “Brian Williams Rise and Fall in 12 Photos.” Apparently MSN has already written Mr. Williams’ obituary. You have to remember, though, that the story on Brian Williams appears on the MSN site alongside such hard news articles as “5 Foods that Kill your Sex Drive.”
Regardless of whether his career is over or not, Mr. Williams’ troubles are a common failing of humans. For those of you who don’t know, Brian Williams is under fire as NBC Nightly News anchor because he falsely stated that he was in an aircraft that was hit by RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fire in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Instead he was in a trailing aircraft. He has apologized and said he can’t explain why he “conflated” the two aircraft. His situation is similar to that of Hillary Clinton when she was running for president in 2008 and claimed that she came under sniper fire in Bosnia. Pictures of her smiling and holding a child just moments after landing and after supposedly being fired upon surfaced and she also apologized for mis-remembering.
Psychologists have a term for what both Mr. Williams and Ms. Clinton did. It’s called self-delusion. For the most part we view our lives as dull and boring. To help us cope we delude ourselves by embellishing things. Most of the time these are harmless tales, like the size of the fish that got away. Sometimes they become a little more serious, such as taking full credit on a resume for a project for which one was a team member but hardly the project leader.
The problem is exacerbated in modern society by Facebook envy. That’s a real term. It’s recognized as a mental disorder. It comes from reading the unrealistically sunny reports on your Facebook friends’ pages. On Facebook everyone vacations in tropical climes, has perfect children and the best job ever. How can you not be depressed reading that and then looking at your own cluttered living room, hearing the kids scream at each other or dreading going to work the next day because your boss is a Neanderthal troll?
The inner Walter Mitty comes out and small events become a little bigger so that our lives have more meaning. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. That’s where the self-delusion comes in. In reality our lives are not more or less meaningful based on our accomplishments. Hillary Clinton’s life is not more meaningful because she was First Lady, a senator, presidential candidate or Secretary of State, regardless of whether or not she was fired on in Bosnia. A life has meaning not because of what one acquires but because of what one gives. As Mother Teresa said, we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.