Lying To Yourself: The Nazi’s Secretary
I just read this article, about a recent in-depth interview given by Joseph Goebbels’ secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel, who is now 105. It’s a fascinating but chilling read, and I recommend that you do. Among other things, it’s a master example of the terrible art of lying – to oneself.
“I know no one ever believes us nowadays – everyone thinks we knew everything. We knew nothing, it was all kept well secret.”
The ability of a human being to lie to themselves is truly impressive. I do believe that she ‘didn’t know’. I can understand that she locked off the knowledge within her mind and refused to let herself ‘see’ what was right before her eyes. For if she had acknowledged to herself what she was really part of, how could she have done her job at the time? And how could she have lived with the guilt in the 70 years that have passed since the Holocaust?
It’s her complete lack of regret that makes this documentary so chilling. Like Eichmann, the banality of evil rears its head once more.
In one way, this is an extreme example of something that many of us do. As my rabbi says, the worst type of lying is when you lie to yourself. When we get older, we tend to lose many of our rose-tinted filters and become better able to see ourselves as we really are. Mostly.
Sometimes, though, we tell ourselves a lie about who we are, and we believe it. We can tell ourselves all kinds of lies. There are the kinds of lies that Pomsel told herself, where we fool ourselves into believing that we are good people despite our actions. But then there’s a more insidious kind of lie. It’s the kind of lie that prevents us from reaching higher. It’s when we tell ourselves that we can never be on time. Or that we never have been able to stick to a weight-loss plan. Or that we don’t have the kind of body that can exercise regularly. Often the lie didn’t even begin with you – it came from your friends, your siblings, your teacher back in elementary school. But you believed it.
This kind of lie only harms ourselves. These lies stop us from reaching our potential. In this month of Elul, in the run-up to the judgement of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, think if there are any lies you have told yourself. Perhaps you are convinced that you can’t exercise, or come up with creative gifts like your sister, or cook like your mother. (You might never be able to it as well as them, it is true, but that should not prevent you from developing your own ability as far as you can.)
Now look for some small way to break down the lie. Make an exercise schedule, or pull out the cookbooks. In Pirkei Avos, the Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Akiva teaches:
“Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin lhivatel mimena”
“You are not required to complete the work, but you are not free from ever beginning it”
His message is taken to refer to our nation’s long-term task of reaching a higher way of living. You on your own cannot perfect the world and bring the Messiah, but you are still obligated to try. It occurred to me that this teaching also applies to breaking down the lies we believe about ourselves. Don’t let your own lies hold you back. You might not be able to learn to cook perfectly or achieve the perfect, strong body, but that does not mean that you don’t have to try.
Long long ago, I read this quote from Salvador Dali:
“Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it”
When I first heard it, and for a long time after that, I thought it was just another weird saying from the father of Surrealism. It’s only recently that I started to realize the depth to his words. Fear of perfection holds us back from starting many things. It’s not that we are scared of becoming perfect, it’s that we fool ourselves into thinking that we should be. Once we accept that perfection is unattainable, we are free to begin to do the best we can.
From Rabbi Akiva to Salvador Dali – just begin it.