Prisoner’s Dilemma

In one of my favorite romantic films: Before Sunset, while on a cruise near the church of Notre Dame, Jesse talks about how he has this idea of his Best-Self, and he wanted to pursue that, even if it might have been overriding his Honest-Self. This is said in the context of his marriage, and how he married someone by thinking that commitment, appreciation, respect, and trust were all that mattered. This was his definition of love when he got married, and his Best-Self told him that if these were around, he need not really wait for the perfect person to come along, and his marriage would work out. The marriage went on to become a sham because his Honest-Self just didn’t love his wife, and his Honest-Self is what lived his real life and decided on happiness, bliss, and peace.

I have felt this Best-Self vs. Honest-Self dilemma in many contexts in life; be it love, relationships, career choices, idealogical living, and countless other everyday situations when the principled Best-Self overrides the self-centered and materialistic Honest-Self – to mixed results.

Are there two or more people inside me? the Best-Self? the Honest-Self? the actor? the director? Why is this craving for the Honest-Self to emulate and finally become the Best-Self? Who are role models? How do we define our Best-Selves? Are people who stick to their Best-Selves all the time better off? Do they become role models?

What about hapless victims like Jesse and me, who have Best-Selves, try to stick to them; but whose lives are being directed by their Honest-Selves, and they just are not able to reconcile…

What about unabashed sensualists who do not bother about idealistic visions, and pursue their Honest-Selves without regret, remorse, or guilt. Do true Hedonists exist? Do they have internal conflicts about duties and rights? Or is there a Jesse in everybody, with differing degrees of will-power, conscience, and principles?

I am sure generalization of this sort won’t work, and time and situations bring out a mix of our selves, and we just act on what seems right at that moment. The dilemma only arises when I have the time to decide on which self I allow to dominate me. That’s when I have a choice. This choice is also coupled with the knowledge that the dominating self of that time won’t be dominating all the time. The future will be different, and I will have changed.

I am a prisoner to this dilemma.

20 thoughts on “Prisoner’s Dilemma

  1. Hmmm – “best” self would mean the ideal self. What I aspire to be, in every facet of life. And “honest” self would be what I actually can do, and more often than not, will do.

    I guess there is a difference because, people do have ideal perceptions of themselves, which they try to stick to, and face tons of problems cuz they dont have the will power to stick to it. What does will power mean? In this context, it’d mean that I’d have to exert non-trivial effort and mould your life to a significant extent so that I can actually live my idealized self.

    The fact that this moulding has to happen shows me that my “honest” self doesn’t want to live the ideal way.

    This brings about the question of whether we have difference perceptions of what we want to be, and what we really are, and who is the meta-level agent who has all these thoughts. No clue.

  2. woolee,

    I still haven’t watched this movie. I will to understand this post better. I always felt that “honest-self = best-self”. Everyone of us leads a life following an ideaolgy, for something which we believe in. But might falter or err at some places/situations depending on the situation but that doesn’t mean his honest self over rides best-self. Its just situational. Honest-self get the best out of you, I say that because only by being honest to oneself, we know what we are capable of and what our limitations are. that means we should accept our failures or shortcomings (may be try to improve the) instead of running after a “best-self” which could just be an illusion. I don’t know if I made any sense but I’m a believer in honesty and I think it brings the best out of any person.

  3. The movie actually has very little to do with this. There is just one line in the movie which talks about this, and I just got those phrases from it. Apart from it, the movie in itself is worth watching for different other reasons.

    If I am being honest about myself, I should be admitting that I am, and have been, at various stages in life, with varying degrees – materialistic, lethargic, lazy, spineless, weak, immoral, unethical, spiteful, angry, jealous, judgmental, hypocritic, etc. Now this is what I am about, but this is surely not what I want to be about; and thats where my best self comes in.

    My best self says that I want to be generous, magnanimous, idealistic, kind, ethical, fair, just, couteous, transparent, meticulous, planned, moderate, etc. Of course, again, all these are just traits that I am listing that would make a “typical” honest, and best self.

    If the honest self (as I have described it) dominates, and the best self just doesn’t matter or exist, the hedonist is born. On the other hand, if the best self dominates, and the honest self is the best self, the semi-ideal person is born. But with varying degrees, I strive to be the semi-ideal person, while unable to let go of the hedonist inside me. That is the dilemma.

    I don’t know how important this dilemma is, but it did strike me when I heard that small piece of dialogue from the movie.

  4. Aah! I get what you say! a difference in perseption I think.
    When you said your best self wants an idealist out of you. Doesn’t that mean your honest self is trying to make a best self. According to me here best self doesn’t exist. Its the quest of honest-self for a best-self. Neways thats what I can think of for the moment. will come back if there is any progress in my thinking…!

  5. As Juror #7 says in 12 Angry Men, I am contending for the Hair Splitter award…But what the heck..I never believed in self-censorship.

    Yeah, its true that the honest self is honest about its aspirations and wants to become what it believes is the best self. But this is not always the case. I have personally taken decisions based on my perception of my best self knowing very well that my honest self would screw me later in the future. And this has happened more than once, and in important decisions.

    Its just the crazy urge to be my best self, to start doing something better, to go for it, in the hope that just because you started, you will stick with it, and make it all work – this insane hope is what the “controller” forces on the best -self and hopes that it will sustain. It has sustained a few times, but it has failed very badly a few times.

  6. i understand and i agree, tej… more than the dilemma as such, i have gone through situations in life where my best-self made decisions, wanted to do things differently and this honest-self screwed up things, sometimes not even giving the best-self a chance… but it is not always a conscious process, when the decision to screw up (yes, it is also a decision) is made… if there is a dialogue going on between these two selves, sometimes this dialogue doesn’t happen consciously… the decision is made and acted upon in a blink, the best-self can only regret later… and now, writing this, i’d difficulty accepting it to be my honest-self (rather than some other stray self) who screwed up, which means admitting that my honest-self is not really the best-self i want/like to be…

  7. I don’t figure a true prisoner’s dilemma here as long as the best self and the honest self can communicate to each other. But yes. It is a dilemma for sure. In such issues, I constantly come across a situation worse than prisoner’s dilemma – the individual versus the community. It seems the society and the individual have a conflict of interest. The society is willing to give and take goodwill. But frequently, members of a society, as a group, don’t treat other individuals the way they treat themselves. And yes, the collective will of the society almost always overwhelms the singled out will of the individual. Consequently, they end up getting a less than fair treatment for themselves. And everyone ends up getting suboptimal treatment. Take the attitude of the Indian society toward sex. Everyone, well, almost everyone, wants to be adulterous as a an individual. But almost everyone, as a member of the society wants to make sure that their children and the people they care about don’t commit adultery. But there are people who in turn care about these enforcers too. In the end everyone sacrifices the desire to be adulterous, when in fact every one could getaway with it; If only people had been willing to treat others as themselves.

  8. i guess we can find this conflict in everything ranging from small to big… we don’t have to look at complexities of society against individual… even simple things were the society is not involved at all… even a simple situation where you get frustrated or sad or really angry, and you take it all out on your loved ones… make some rude or harsh remarks… things the best self wouldn’t say or even think about saying… the next instant, you regret… even the honest-self regrets… but had the best-self been given a chance, it might not have even uttered those words… that way, everything we do and later regret, boils down to a conflict between the real self (honest-self) vs. the one we want/strive to be(best-self)… when the real matches our ideal, there is no scope for regret… when there is a mismatch, there is guilt, regret, dissatisfaction, frustration…

  9. hey i think it should be the other way round “honest” self would mean the ideal self where we aspire to be, in every facet of life. And “best” self would be what we actually can do. n Life is like torture inflicted on prisoners under interrogation so its better to smile n face it rather than being a prisoner to this dilemma.

  10. The comments to this post reminds me of the document reviews in a big company .. ppl comment not to clear their own heads neither the authors but to see their names appear πŸ™‚

    Why do we consider honest self as less good than the best self?
    Whats wrong in being hedonistic?
    Life begins and ends .. there is nothing before nor after. So ideally the *best self* should not even exist!

  11. Hey Teju,
    Great Post and my god that is how I feel so many times. Maybe to some extent it is a Nadahalli trait. I want to be this nice Ms.Perfect, Organized, All Goody Goody, PR person. Which I am to a big extent – i.e. my Best Self. But sometimes my honest self shows up and people get confused and I get confused also….((sigh)). You have put in words in much better way than I could have. πŸ™‚

  12. I think if we read “best self” to mean “who i want to be” and “honest self” to mean “who i am”, what Teju (and others) say becomes much clearer.

    And Bhanu, your “best self” sounds quite boring.I have a suspicion your “honest self” is way more multi dimensional and interesting!

    now, to further complicate things, “who i want to be” can be “negative” in which case, does “best” make sense any more ?

  13. I would suggest that the honest self be framed and to be looked at time and again, while the best self is having all the fun πŸ˜‰

    It resembles the typical nature of many of us, who would dream to live a quite life beside a lake, with a cottage, and a boat. But, given all that, we would go mad without action.

    Hence, let the honest self be on the wall, to remind us of what we can be, while we rampage in the real world with the best self πŸ˜‰

    (ps: the younger one)

  14. Before sunrise and its sequel remain to be my favorite romantic films to date.
    my all the questions raised answer is yes.
    There is no white or black..right or is grey

  15. All of us have a “best self” who is an idealism of what we want to be in life. For example, one of the parameters of defining my best self would be that my best self would be very accomodative, would care for other people’s feelings, and generally be an easy person to live with.

    But in reality, I am not. No matter how hard I try, I get irritated, I don’t adjust, I fight. And no matter how hard I keep trying, I can’t make a life decision based on my best self.

    And I don’t, most people don’t. They know that they are trying to be their best selfs, but they take their honest selves into consideration while deciding on “stuff”.

    I wish you would as well.

    – Peggotty

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