Bruce Hampton, a senior in college, had just gotten word that he would not graduate because he failed two subjects. He came close to passing in both, but narrowly missed the needed grades.
In both cases, the professors were known to be sticklers for utmost accuracy, allowing no leniency in their marking systems. Both were particularly hard on athletes-–and Bruce had played four years of football and basketball. This was a simple retaliation, according to Bruce.
The fact was that 95 percent of the students in these classes passed and Bruce Hampton failed only because he neglected to study. But it is hard to say, “I seldom cracked a book and took my chances on passing or failing.” It is natural to dodge the truth and come up with an excuse that sounds reasonable. As Sir Walter Scott once wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
Through rationalization, it is possible to persuade yourself that an actual weakness of your character is a virtue. A white-hot temper can become, in your thinking, an instrument to produce righteousness in others. A real difficulty can be regarded as a big joke. Good deeds can be a mask for an appetite that thrives on praise. A spirit of revenge can be cast in the framework of a search for justice. You can make yourself appear better than you really are and by your effort mislead others.
Rationalization starts when you are unwilling to admit the unpleasant truth. Cheryl and Dave, just out of high school, were very much in love. Their parents said they were too young to get married. Dave ought to get more schooling, and Cheryl needed the maturation a job would bring. But the young couple saw the future differently.
He was a carryout boy at a supermarket. He didn’t make much money, but they knew that somehow they’d get along on it. So despite the pleading of both sets of parents, they were married. They found a dingy apartment in a part of town that neither was used to living in, gathered up some odds and ends of furniture, and began life together.
Theirs would be the most romantic of marriages. They would rise from rags to riches. Then, in their third month of marriage, Cheryl got pregnant.
How thrilled they were that soon they would be parents! But one day Dave came home from the store to find Cheryl crying. She had been crying most of the day. The dingy apartment depressed her.
Dave’s heart was touched. He decided to surprise her. The next day he ordered a new electric stove. As if by magic, Cheryl was transformed into a radiant person. She enjoyed life again. But not for long.
The contrast between the new stove and the rest of the room was too much for her to take. So Dave went out and ordered a decorating job and more new kitchen equipment. She became happy again–for awhile.
When they came for counseling, they had a newly painted and papered apartment, all new furniture–and debts that had all but drowned them. And Dave had an unhappy wife again.
Both wanted to believe that their only problem was a matter of what their apartment looked like. On the basis of this rationalization they plunged in over their heads in debt. Their problem was much more involved.
Both were willful persons. They had paid no attention to the advice of their parents and friends who cautioned them not to enter marriage hastily. They simply were not able to afford marriage, but they had refused to look at this fact. They could not stand their tiny apartment on the wrong side of the tracks. Cheryl resented her pregnancy. He despised her cooking, having assumed that all girls could cook as well as his mother and finding out that she was the one great exception. Neither Dave nor Cheryl could even shop wisely. But they desperately sought to rationalize their problems by covering them with paint on the walls and a new rug on the floor.
Their unwillingness to recognize the root of their unhappiness and conflicts caused them to turn to self-deception, which led them into a new set of problems that was as frustrating as the old.
Both were basically selfish. When their wills coincided, there was no problem. But she demanded a nicer place to live. When she had to admit they could not afford it, she became difficult. He went into debt to avoid being the one to receive the brunt of her misery, but he resented having to do so. And all the time they told each other that if their parents would cut out the nagging and he could just make a little more money, they would be supremely happy.