Shortly after the film Catch Me If You Can begins, there’s an incident detailing protagonist 17 year old Frank Abagnale’s first day at a new high school. It’s a rough thing for Frank: his well-to-do father has been caught by the IRS after doing some shady things, and all of a sudden, the comfortably affluent lifestyle of the Abagnale family isn’t so comfortably affluent anymore. So among other things --- such as the confiscation of the family car, and being forced to move to very modest living accommodations --- Frank can no longer attend the tony private school he previously went to. Instead, he has to attend the local public high school and meet its inhabitants, the Great Unwashed. Of course, his rough start isn’t helped by the fact that he insists on still wearing his private school uniform --- complete with blazer, shirt and tie --- to his new school, which is akin to unwittingly painting a very large target on his back. (Why do people do that sort of thing, anyway? Is it defiance? Total obliviousness to new realities? Clinging to a familiar and secure memory? Lack of ability to confront and adapt to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Bizarre rationalizations? Well, the answer, I suspect, is... yes.)
At his first class --- his very first class! --- Frank is confronted by one of the Great Unwashed (GU) mentioned earlier, and it’s here, in a split second, that he makes his rationalization. The GU kid (and we’ve all encountered them, he said, sighing and rolling his eyes, regardless of whether our high school career was decades ago or is still in progress today) is unpleasantly large with knuckles that drag on the ground, I’m certain, and not terribly bright, possessing just enough malicious glimmerings of intelligence to make life miserable for his victim du jour. In short, something very like the cave troll encountered by Frodo and Company in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Now, the dim-witted GU kid makes an observation about Frank, saying he looks dorky enough to be a substitute teacher or something, and Frank seizes on that. In an amazing display of either courage or insanity (there’s often a very fine dividing line between the two), Frank presents himself to the class as just that: their substitute teacher. This gives him the opportunity to exact a measure of revenge on the GU kid, which is admittedly kinda sweet. But the kicker to the whole thing is that Frank maintains the charade for an entire week, teaching the class and even going so far as to schedule a parent teacher conference.
Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is an act of supreme rationalization, submitted for your approval.
Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s also a pretty ballsy thing to do (and pretty entertaining when it’s being told in a story). But... how on earth do you rationalize such an act? The real teacher is bound to return to work eventually. Or the administration is bound to cotton on to this fraudulent usurpation of authority sooner or later (which they do). And just what do you think is going to happen when this little escapade is brought to light? Hint: it ain’t going to end in sweetness and laughter.
We --- all of us --- see this sort of thing all the time. And we all do it, too. It’s almost like a willful denial of reality: we don’t want to face the realities we’re given, so we invent our own. Little kids do this, to the bafflement and chagrin of their parents. I recall painful conversations that went something like this with my own children:
ME: (in tones of righteous parental condemnation) Why did you hit your sibling?
CHILD: (with perfect equanimity) I didn’t.
ME: (startled at this blatant denial of reality) Yes, you did!
CHILD: (calmly) No, I didn’t.
ME: (beginning to lose my cool at this farce) I SAW you!
CHILD: (still maddeningly calm) No, you didn’t.
And so on, right down a rabbit hole of absurdity that makes Alice’s conversations with the Mad Hatter seem absolutely sane and reasonable. (Note to prospective parents: never argue with a toddler. It’s like herding cats: there’s no way to win.)
Now, we’re prepared to be relatively forgiving with young kids who rationalize like this. After all, they’re just little kids, and Don’t Understand The Ways Of The World. But for anyone over the age of five, it’s a different story.
The problem with rationalization is that it seldom ends well, because, much as we try to ignore unpleasant realities by constructing our own more pleasant fantasies, those fantasies are mere sand castles, helpless to withstand the inexorable tides of reality. And reality has a nasty way of crushing those sand castles flat, often with devastating consequences.
As writers, we want our story characters to be full of rationalizations. It provides all sorts of delicious absurdities that we can exploit in the way of plot lines and character interactions.
But in real life... well...
(Excuse me. I need to go and have another slice of chocolate cake now. I can hear it calling to me from the kitchen. And it’s really only a very small slice, so it won’t matter. And it’s full of healthy things, like milk and eggs and stuff, so it’s not really like I’m cheating on my diet, and...)