My first wife was batshit crazy. I did not pick up on this until it was far too late. I probably should have though, the clues were there. Both her mother and her were residents of reality that was occasionally not overlapping at all with the reality the rest of us were living in. When they weren’t rationalizing away their behavior, they were just lying outright. They would take a piece of truth and spin it into an outrageous warping of reality that one could almost believe – as long as you stopped thinking critically. They never let physics or workings of the universe get in the way of their version of reality.
It was all quite horrible after the honeymoon. She would do things that made no sense and come up with justifications that would make sense, if they were based on truth. She’d start with truth, but if the first rationalization didn’t succeed, she would lie and try again. Until you believed or gave up arguing. Or just gave up. Which I did too often.
Years later as Melinda and I were dealing with my schizophrenic son, James, that came out of that first marriage (that diagnosis did not come until after he was an adult), I often reflected on my first marriage, her and her family, and what I had noticed elsewhere about rationalization. I came to this conclusion. The habit of over-rationalization causes mental illness. Of course, this was prior to understanding that mental illness is a physical illness, and when I later learned that, I modified my conclusion to: Over-rationalization deepens mental illness. (My opinion only, I don’t know what practitioners think of this.)
I saw over-rationalization a lot while we were married (and afterwards, from a more comfortable distance). Much of it was to make herself the victim or the center of attention, or both. It got to the point where there were times I could not understand what she was talking about because her world did not correspond to mine. When she had a psychotic break during our time in Alaska, I was finally able to try and get some help. Not that the Army had all that much in support available, but we did get her seen by psychiatrists and tested. I was tested too, both as a control and to determine if I was a/the problem. The results were not good. Her, histrionic with borderline personality disorder; me, normal (whew),but passive.
[It makes me physically ill to revisit these memories. Writing about James, as Zach has asked, will be worse.]
A couple years earlier, while at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky I had the opportunity to go to the Marksmanship Training Unit for eight weeks to become a sniper. It was like learning how to shoot all over again. It was fun. It was cool. More important than learn to “shoot well and true” as Stephen King’s Roland of Gilead might say, I learned about self-honesty.
There were two instructors at the MTU. Both retired soldiers with experience in Viet Nam. Joe White had retired as a sergeant-major and basically seemed to view the MTU as part of his personal ministry.
When we went to the firing range, Joe would sit along side us with a big-ass spotting scope and watch each round go downrange observing it impact on the half-inch thick mild steel targets. With each shot we made, he would say two words, “Call it.” Our responsibility was to then sound off with direction that the front sight of the rifle jumped upon firing.
Ideally, the we should have been calling “12 o’clock” meaning that the sight went straight up and straight back down. That indicated that our bodies were in the proper natural alignment with the target and that our breath control and trigger squeeze were properly timed. If we were to call “12 o’clock” when in fact the bullet’s flight path was to two o’clock, Joe would yell out. “Someone’s lying to themselves. Am I right? You’re Goddamn right I am.” Over and over again.
Retired Sergeant-major Joe White was a no-nonsense kind of guy. About half the class failed to qualify in the end. (Note for clarification: I qualified.] Everyone of those soldiers made excuses and rationalized why they couldn’t sit cross-legged or get quite right in the prone position. It was clear to me that this kind of ruthless self-honesty was at least a partial key to success. It wouldn’t overcome laziness or stupidity, but it would help ensure you recognize when those terms apply to you. It took time to really begin to integrate these principles in my life, but it was an experience I don’t expect to forget.
So, I carry these experiences with me and they define a lot of what I do, for good and ill. For the latter, the efforts toward brutal self-honesty have lead to an overabundance of self-criticism and worse. Yes, I have tendency to take things too far.
For the good, these experiences have defined my understanding and appreciation of the limits of data and data systems. You see, it would be nice to believe that data and their accompanying systems are always objective and free from bias, but they are not. Instead, they are almost always biased toward the majority or toward a specific agenda.
For example, when I got to Virginia, I found that our collection standards prohibited institutions providing data to us from reporting gender as unknown/unreported and race/ethnicity unknown/unreported. Institutions were required to default such values to match the majority of students at the institution. This creates bias in the data. Any reporting done from these data creates an illusion of objective fact that is simply that: illusion. Fortunately, the bias created from these numbers is likely small as eliminating those reporting rules and allowing for unknowns resulted in trivial changes.
The rationale for these rules was ultimately this. IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System of the US Department of Ed, did not allow for reporting unknown/unreported in either element. The agency at that time was creating and submitting the annual IPEDS survey data on behalf of the institutions. Thus it made sense to collect the data in a way that maximizes alignment with federal reporting. Sort of. Reporting is just that, reporting, and reporting is a series of decisions about collation, grouping, and aggregation. There is no reason to collect data inaccurately to make it easy to report. Inaccurate collection of data damages its usability for a wide variety of purposes, especially for such things as studying student success.
So, how do these tie together?
It’s about my bias towards clarity of fact and knowing. With my ex-wife, it got to the point that the only things I knew were true were those things I observed myself or that had a verifiable paper trail. In sniper school I learned to know myself better through self-honesty and awareness of when I was not being honest with myself. The story about our data system is about how inaccuracy and, to my mind rationalization (of collection standards), leads to biased systems…and biased thinking. I think while these have been important lessons and structural points in my development, as usual I’ve taken them a bit too far, as I said earlier, I have tendency to do that.
I’ve become far too critical of just about everything, anyone. I find it difficult to trust. This includes trusting basic statements. It becomes too easy, too natural, to start parsing everything someone says. This is especially true in a digital context, like email or messaging. While I am generally comfortable with unknowns, I get very discomforted when things seem to be left out. Or worse, when I can’t reconcile other data directly related to communication, such as digital footprints and timestamps. And then there is the whole self-criticism thing. Not only do I beat myself up for making mistakes, or for lying to myself “Goddammit Tod, stop lying to yourself,” I hear myself say, it’s often followed by the self-critical shouting, “Well, you should have known! You should have seen it coming! Idiot.”
Idiot indeed for treating myself this way. Time to stop. I think now though I have a better understanding of why I do it, which should make it easier to stop. I hope. This self-criticism has (had) just gotten to be far too much and unnecessary. So also has this constant parsing of things said and unsaid. Political speech is one thing that needs to be parsed, but not every other conversation. It is painful and unhelpful and leads to more criticism generally. It needs to stop.
I also hope this makes sense to anyone who has lasted this far, if not, let me know in the comments.