Chapter 8: Paranoia

To be concerned about rational, credible, and likely threats is necessary to human survival - but to be concerned about irrational, imaginary, and improbable threats is wasteful and damaging.

Russell refers to this concept as "persecution mania" and recognizes that, when taken to extremes, it is recognized as a form of insanity, but his concern is not the extreme case, but the milder form that is not pronounced enough to prevent a person from living a normal life, but merely causes them perpetual unhappiness.

It is likely everyone is familiar with the person who, according to his own account, is perpetually the victim of unkindness and treachery, and use this as a means to gain assistance and sympathy from strangers. Those who have spent much time in their company are weary of their constant complaints, and because the ploy is so often used to gain confidence and take advantage of others, its power to do so is diminished. But a person who feigns paranoia is significantly different to one who genuinely believes himself to be the constant target of persecution.

As a rule, we can expect to be mistreated by others, as each man's primary concern is to his own interests and he may show callus disregard or blind indifference to his fellow man. Those who recognize this seldom suffer prosecution mania, but merely a coincidence of unfortunate events. Those who do not develop the perspective that others are constantly intent on doing them harm - and this is quite detrimental to happiness in any social encounter.

Russell speaks of gossip - people are interested in hearing bad things about others as it assuages their feelings of envy toward them to learn that they are in some way flawed. And while people are eager to hear gossip, and often engage in gossiping about their friends, they demonstrate "indignant amazement" when they discover anyone has spread gossip about themselves.

There is also in paranoia some element of narcissism - in that we expect others to admire us in every respect and at all times, hence are disappointed when we learn they do not. "Persecution mania is rooted in a too exaggerated conception of our own merits."

There are also those "unguarded moments" when someone speaks rather too candidly and unintentionally ignites a war of gossip. We all know that our friends have their faults, and find them agreeable in spite of an occasional irritation. This also feds gossip, as a means of revenge on those who have said something negative about us, we are less inclined to keep secret their flaws and embarrassments. We cannot expect perfection of others any more than we can embody it ourselves.

Paranoia also arises as a mechanism of defense against accepting the blame for our own shortcomings - to fix the fault on someone else's behavior rather than our own. In essence, it is refusing to accept responsibility for the consequences of our own choices, though in some instances it may be a desperate attempt to identify the blame for some happenstance accident of bad fortune.

Conversely, it can also arise from too little self-esteem, as the person who has enjoyed a success he feels he has not earned is also subject to constant fear of being exposed as a pretender and a fraud. This occurs when we fail to recognize the positive consequences of our own actions, or even when we recognize that we are the beneficiaries of some happy accident of good fortune.

He speaks of a common victim of persecution mania: "a certain type of philanthropist who is always doing good to people against their will, and is amazed and horrified that they display no gratitude." Acts that are ostensibly done of kindness are often motivated by a desire for esteem and power over others - to interfere in the lives of others to compel them to embrace what we feel is good for them, and deprive them of their liberty in the bargain. It is little wonder the "benefactors" of such actions are resistant and spiteful.

The author suggests four maxims to consider:

1. You are not as altruistic as you pretend to be

Each person acts in a way to make the world conform to his own vision of what it ought to be. Both the businessman and philanthropist expect that others will value what he has to offer, and that the results of his work will be the improvement of mankind. Setting aside the hubris of such an attitude, consider its veracity.

People seldom subject their own motivations to the same scrutiny with which they view the motivations of others, and they can be quite crafty even to themselves about the reasons they believe something ought to be done.

For the businessman, his motive to profit is clear - he would not seek to serve others but for the profit he will make by doing so. For the politician or philanthropist, money is not their objective - but neither to they seek to serve others so much as to glorify themselves. Praise is the coin they covet.

The "high-minded" idealist is very low in his motives: he wishes to prove himself better than others. The mendicants who receive his favors are clearly beneath him, as are any of his peers who is less willing or capable of extending charity.

If his efforts and contributions alleviate the suffering of others, it is coincidental and of little concern to him. The fact that he gave, and is recognized for giving, is sufficient motivation. It is in fact better if his efforts do nothing for his beneficiaries, so that they might still be in need and still need his generous assistance.

This is presuming his efforts are wanted at all - as there is also within charity the notion of control, and the power to interfere in the lives of others. At best, this is with the thought that they should wish to do the things we wish them to do, and sometimes this may be true; but most often it is indifferent to their desires, to their liberty, and to their dignity that others should do what we wish them to do.

It is deeply ironic that people with the most craven of motivations wish to persuade themselves and others that they are acting unselfishly for the welfare of others, when the motivations to charity are utterly self-serving and callously indifferent to their fellow men.

2. You overestimate your own abilities

The second of these maxims considers the hubris of man - we misrepresent ourselves to be better than we are, and sometimes are genuinely deceived by ourselves into believing it.

In undertaking an action, a man imagines he will succeed. The aspiring artist seems to ignore that there are very many works of terrible quality, and that every abomination was created by another artist who had the same aspirations of success and who took just as much care in its execution.

The entrepreneur, at any activity, imagines himself to be uniquely qualified. He presumes that he is smarter, more tenacious, more careful, or in other ways better than others who have tried and failed at the same endeavor, and even by the same means. He does not recognize that he is just another "untalented person puffed up with vanity."

A foolish man spends his effort in pursuit of a hopeless cause, though we encourage this by assuring ourselves that we are struggling in pursuit of a just cause. But ultimately, failure is failure, and "when you have been dead a hundred years it will be impossible to guess to which category you belonged."

There's an oblique mention of motivation: if you produce because you feel compelled to create something of value, your success will be in its creation to your own standards. If you produce because you seek the recognition of other men, then the quality of your work is always going to be of secondary concern - in essence, you lack the integrity and belief in your own capabilities that is necessary to succeed.

The difference is that the first kind of producer is gratified by the progress he makes toward his goal, and can be happy long before his masterpiece is delivered, at which time the opinions of others are of little importance.

The second kind is unhappy until his work is delivered, and only then if he receives the applause he craves. If you are not happy in the process, then you are acting in a way that is "pretty sure to be the source of an unhappy life."

3. No one is as fond of you as you are of yourself

It is important, though sometimes difficult, to recognize that each person sees life "from their own angle and as it touches their own ego" and not from your angle as it touches yours. This is true even of our friends, families, and colleagues.

But egoism is natural: no-one can truly share the thoughts and experiences of another, only their own. This is not harmful, but necessary for survival and progress.

It requires some unusual event to distracts a man from himself and causes him to recognize, or even to notice, the positive qualities of other people. It is a single act of dramatic heroism that leads us to recognize the bravery a person has possessed all along, and the achievement of a goal that leads us to recognize the effort, intelligence, devotion, and other qualities of character that were present even before the goal was achieved.

But such occasions are unusual, and our indifference to others is not hate but merely failure to recognize the reasons they should be loved - and "failure" is for lack of evidence. It is very rare that we should notice other people, and remain self-absorbed.

Ultimately, other people have just as much right to do so as you, no more obligation to fawn at your greatness than you have to fawn at theirs. They are self-centered and unobservant, but no more so than yourself. And if you think yourself to be a great person, then they are far less so inclined.

On the rare occasion that you accomplish something that takes their attention, or on the chance that they will spend an idle moment considering your character, they will develop a fondness for you - but such occasions are few and far between.

4. You are simply not that important to other people

A premise of the third maxim is that people do not recognize your capabilities until they have culminated in an achievement - and so it follows that at most times, you are not the center of their attention or thoughts: you simply are less important to them than the other things that affect them in their daily lives.

This is not to say that each person does not have some cadre of family, friends, and well-wishers - just that this group is very small, and even they are more concerned with their own affairs, in which you do not play a role.

To think on another person constantly is a form of mania, and one of which few are guilty. Some great hero may embody a cause we wish to espouse, or some great villain embody an evil we wish to combat - but there is only room in the human mind for so many heroes or villains, and the great mass of humanity, of which each of us is a part, is largely unnoticed by the others.

To assume otherwise is vanity, and to demand otherwise is unrealistic and will lead to constant disappointment and unhappiness.