January 20, 2008

Personal Power Corrupts Personally

Did you catch the Tom Cruise video that was all the rage last week on the interweb? It was on Gawker (via YouTube) and the Church of Scientology is suing to take it down. Or something.

As I watched the video, I was reminded of what creeps me out the most about Scientology, and it isn’t limited to scientologists.

It’s the whole personal power gig. Now, I’m all for giving people advice to help them sort their lives out. Especially when they ask for it. But when people are on a crusade to supersize their personal power, it makes my skin crawl. That’s a visceral reaction, and I’ve had it since I first learned about est when I was in college.

With Scientology, they seem to have cranked the skincrawl factor (I like to abbreviate it to SF because it’s cool to have your own secret acronym language) up to eleven by insisting that their thoughts can change reality, something that the cult of The Secret also has latched on to.

My thoughts can change reality, too! If I think the right thoughts, like I’m going to give you noogies, and then I allow my muscles to move my arm and grind my knuckle into your scalp, then my thoughts have changed reality. The thing is, I have to use my physical body to do it. That, inconveniently enough, is the way the universe works.

Some people think that all they need to do is think, and reality bends toward their will. That’s dopey, but it’s the “drunk on your own personal power” trip that really gives me the heebie jeebies.

The idea that I keep hearing with selfish belief systems is that if you are focused enough on your success, then you will achieve it. My take is that if you are focused enough on your own success, you will be an insufferable bore, a self-absorbed ninny, possibly a danger to the world and you will make people’s skin crawl. The more focused you are on changing reality with your thoughts, the more your own brain is going to become out of synch with reality.

There are people who don’t believe that their thoughts change reality, but are self-deluded beyond the norm and craft their own versions of reality. Our president is possibly one of those people, and all you have to do is watch the news to see the results of staying focused on how you want reality to be rather than facing reality. Now imagine how much worse a situation you could get yourself into if you not only deluded yourself about reality, but also on how you interacted with reality. It’s a double dose of delusional thinking.

Something else was bugging me, this time about Buddhism. The idea that suffering comes from attachment bothered me because on the one hand it makes some sense. On the other hand, I want to be attached to certain things, like my wife and children, and I think that good comes out of those attachments. I am only superficially informed about Buddhism, though, so I looked it up for an explanation.

One explanation that I read led me to believe that my interpretation of attachment was wrong. This explanation said that our attachment is to ideas, such as an idea of how reality is. For example, you might become attached to the idea of your life being perfect. Your attachment to an idea would cause you suffering when your idea differed from reality. Or, you could have an idea about the world which brought you misery — perhaps you imagine that you are jinxed or cursed.

In any case, an attachment to an idea of something, or an idealized version of something could certainly cause you suffering when you have a “cognitive dissonance” between your thoughts and reality. Suddenly, I found this explanation of attachment to be comforting rather than troubling. A philosophy which urges you to try to see things more clearly rather than to bend reality to your thoughts is one that I can find wisdom in.

I think that facing reality, especially the reality of change which is beyond your control could help these folks who are attached to the idea that they are the shapers of reality. And maybe the rest of us can benefit from it, too, Buddhist or not.


Craig Ferguson practically nailed the video in this brief parody.


“You revived your blog for this?

Posted by James at January 20, 2008 10:51 PM
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To be clear, I'm not lumping attempts at improving oneself with self-delusion. People should always strive to better themselves, and there are many paths to that result.

Some paths lead you closer to self-absorption than others, and some people succumb to narcissism more easily than others.

Posted by: James at January 21, 2008 3:30 AM

I never even heard about the original video. Did he seem as cokey in that as Ferguson does in the parody?

Posted by: Julie at January 21, 2008 9:01 AM

Supersize their personal power, ha ha.

K handed me a Muse belonging to her and asked me to interpret an article about self-esteem and bullying. Contrary to what we're all taught, that bullies have low self-esteem and that's why they bully, bullies actually have overly high self-esteem and a warped sense of reality. Didn't we already know that? Who started this "bullies have low self-esteem" idea? Booo, poor bullies, we should feel sorry for them and help them to feel better when they stuff us in our locker. Ha. It does seem that people who are focused on getting more "personal power" already have more than their fair share.

Funny poster (I love these guys):

Posted by: Maggie at January 21, 2008 10:16 AM

It's funny, I thought that when I drive by an accident (or traffic collision), it's the paramedics and firefighters that help the victims. Turns out its really Tom Cruise.

I think all religions and cults and spirituality is just a way to avoid fixing real problems in front of us. Buddhism, for example, is all about forcing peasants to accept their place in the caste system.

Posted by: David grenier at January 21, 2008 11:36 AM

There's a valuable observation in there (though saying that's what Buddhism is all about seems a little simplistic).

Organized religion is an organized power, and yes, the people who are in power are usually interested in keeping the current order going and keeping themselves in power. If you can give people something helpful along the way, they're more likely to stick with the system.

Even charity is a way to keep the current order going.

I believe that knowledge and information have a different dynamic than food. I think more knowledge leads to more freedom, more reliably than more charity does.

Of course, you still have to eat. But education can help with that.

Posted by: James at January 21, 2008 11:47 AM

XKCD has a good comic related to this today:


Posted by: Chuck S. at January 21, 2008 2:01 PM

Wow... I'm wondering what it is Tom Cruise thinks he's doing to improve the world. I've never read any stories about him stopping at car accidents (since he's the only person who can help). What's the fight he's fighting? How has he improved things? Who are the people out there depending on him???

If you watch that video long enough, you can actually start feeling like he's just a deluded little kid with a tin foil hat and a sekrat clubhaus. OTOH, if he can change things with his mind, why *can't* he just go on vacation and romp? It's really insane.

Posted by: Maggie at January 21, 2008 2:35 PM

I never did get the hang of drawing comics.

Posted by: James at January 21, 2008 3:16 PM

Seriously. The last time I think I saw him "get involved" was when he gave Brooke Shields crap about postpartum depression. Perhaps that is the "tough love" he was talking about.

Posted by: briwei at January 21, 2008 3:48 PM

Let me just say that I never saw "Risky Business," his claim to fame, and I never ever thought he was hot.

Take that, Tom Cruise.

Posted by: Patti M. at January 21, 2008 6:40 PM

Okay, I admit it. I am jealous that XKCD can somehow pull together a successful comic with a graph like that.

Although, that's not one of the better XKCD comics. While some really miss the mark, a lot of them are really cute and/or insightful. They're common Reddit fodder, although a little less so these last few months.

I would criticize that particular one because a lack of evidence is different from refutation. However, the point of the comic is on target. I would change the labels to read "Evidence for believing said claims" vs. "Reasons to be skeptical of said claims."

Posted by: James at January 21, 2008 7:36 PM

You know, as I reflect on that creepy video, I've realized something. He really thinks he IS an action hero. I bet he thinks that the stuff that happens in his movies is possible.

Posted by: briwei at January 22, 2008 12:01 PM

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