Friday, October 29, 2010


I don't know about you, but I was raised with certain expectations. Causes and effects. If you work hard, you'll be rewarded and successful. Honesty is always the best policy. Love always wins out over hate. The bad guys never win, crime doesn't pay. Etc., etc. You know the drill.

So what really happens? Sometimes these things are true, but just as often (if not more often) they are not. Hard work is rewarded with more work and no more pay, while those who don't work seem to reap more rewards. Bullshit and manipulation mean more than honesty if you want to get ahead. Love? What is that? And as for crime--well, refer back to the second item in this list.

This is a rare election year in the United States. I'm used to choosing between bad and worse. I'm not used to choosing between craven cowardice and bat-shit insanity. Outside of politics, human civility seems to be at an all-time low, and forget economics--the more you try to pay debts, the more companies try to milk you for more money, as though you're being penalized for trying to pay.

There's a lot that doesn't match up with everything I've learned. When I'm under a lot of stress, I find I have no patience for the disrespectful and clueless behaviors of others. And it seems to be getting worse, not better. After an evening thinking about this, I realized where the problem lies. It lies in "shoulds".

If you revisit the first sentence of this posting, you'll see a lot of "shoulds". This is the way the world "should" operate. Well, back up a second--in whose worldview? Well, mine obviously, and perhaps my family's, and perhaps the community I grew up in. I think if you ask most people, they will agree with many of those mentioned tenets. But their interpretation of them will be very different, depending on their worldview. And that's only the tip of the iceberg.

One of the things usually taught in a liberal arts education is some kind of philosophy course--something in logic, and perhaps also ethics. There is a myth that reason and logic are the critical ideals, that humans use these tools to make the best decisions. Even if that is true--well, it isn't true. I'm not suggesting that logic and reason should be discarded--they are hugely important, especially when trying to make decisions that affect many people with different worldviews. What I'm saying is that logic and reason do not make the world go round.

Humans are complex creatures; our psychology is baffling. I'm not even including religion in this, as I think it's more of a scapegoat than the real problem. Religion is a means of negotiating the unknown. It is true that doctrines and dogmas handed down by religious authorities can lead to certain unconscious myths and expectations--a whole lot of "shoulds". But religion is hardly the only culprit. Our society, popular culture, our communities, our family's values, and our own perceptions, as well as what's inherited from the collective unconscious, all make up the crazy mix that is our psychology (pun intended).

If you look first at individuals--we all are programmed, or program ourselves, with certain "myths". We accept certain things "a priori"--it's "the way things are". When someone does something outside of that purview, we scramble to make sense of the event--whether we reject the event and the person through our judgement, or try to find logical reasons for the event. Ironically, our mind doesn't work logically, but we always try to deal with unexpected events logically, or at least interpret them in terms of our internal myths.

To take a very simple example--say that you pass a co-worker every day and say "good morning" in the hallway. Then, for about 2 weeks, that person doesn't speak to you or make eye contact with you. The first thing you do is wonder if you've offended that person, you go over every possible encounter and conversation, you may ask others about them. If you can't come up with a reason, or you contrive one (you think perhaps they were offended by a comment you made, even though they never said anything), then you become defensive against that person. They are so terribly selfish and unwilling to understand you, aren't they? You're just misunderstood. Then--you find out that had a life-changing event--a spouse left them in an unhappy divorce, a parent died, or something else happened, which now puts their behavior in context. It's not about you, it's about what they're going through. And thus I've demonstrated a peculiarity of human psychology--we think everything that happens around us is because of us.

Fear is another good example. How many times have we been afraid of things when there's absolutely no good reason? And then put all these factors into groups--I've written in the past about group psychology and herd mentality. Then add a media that writes about and interprets the culture based on their own criteria (usually, what can be hyped to make a good story), and what have you got? Well, it's not a rational and logical humanity, whatever it is.

I think this is why detachment is considered to be such a value in meditation. Detachment is not cold and selfish, at least not in this sense. Detachment allows you to stand back and watch life as though you are watching a movie. When you really look at it, you may be able to see how absurd it is. But a lot of people equate this with not caring. I remember writing a poem about my impressions of others, how I interpreted the "vibes" I felt while riding the subway at rush hour. One woman who read my poem gave me a lot of attitude for "judging these people and not thinking it applies to you, too." She missed the point entirely. One has to look at things as though they're not happening to them once in awhile. Your impressions of the outside are the first step. How you fit in is the next step.

I don't wish to suggest that certain kinds of behavior are justified. But you will go crazy if you believe that the world is a rational place. Maybe it should be. But it isn't.

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