Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Musings of a Philosophical Bear: On Accepting Society

"Don't go around saying the world owes you a living.
The world owes you nothing. It was here first."
-Mark Twain

I've had an uncomfortable thought that has haunted me most of my life. Seeing the way that people treat one another, I've come to accept the harsh truth that deep down no one really cares. I don't think the world is doomed because of our lack of compassion, but I get the real sense that the world has enough problems of its own to give a shit about mine. It's a cold thought for sure but outside of a select group of friends and family, no one really values me for who I am but only for what I can do for them. Even amongst our friends we silently calculate how much we're getting out of the relationship. If it seems too unbalanced then we bounce. There's a certain amount of despair that can come from this realization, but on the other hand it's also quite logical. No one is going to care more about what happens to you than… you. We might come to the mistaken conclusion that all we are is the sum of what we do; mirroring the attitude of the word around us, forgetting who we really are. But if we know who we are, we don't need people to care about who we are. Why? Because we are in a constant state of need. We need each other's help and if you can act out of an authentic drive and do something useful for other people, what you do can be valuable and reflect who you are at the same time.

To illustrate this point, let's perform a “thought” experiment. Let's say that the person you love the most in this world has just been shot. They are lying in the street, bleeding, dying, and screaming in pain. A guy rushes up and says, "Step aside." He looks over your loved one's bullet wound and pulls out a pocket knife. It looks like he's going to operate right there in the street. You're amazed at his confidence and willingness to help in an emergency, but you're curious about his qualifications. You ask him if he's a doctor, he says no. You ask if he's a medic or has had some sort of emergency medical training. He says not to worry, because he knows what he's doing. You reach to stop him from cutting into your loved one and he turns to you and tells you a story. He tells you about how he's a really nice guy who has made many charitable contributions to society.  Not only is he honorable, pleasant and with a great sense of humor, he is honest about his shortcomings and explains how he's always on time to work and polite to complete strangers. He goes on to explain that he's a great son to his sick mother and he takes her to the doctor even when it's inconvenient for him. It is here where the word “doctor” pulls you out of the trance of the wholesomeness this complete stranger has lulled you into. You become angry. You ask, how the fuck does any of this matter when my loved one is dying on the pavement?

You yell at the stranger to call 911 and he becomes irritated with you. He asks you why you're being so shallow and selfish. He might not have medical training, but don't you care about any of his other good qualities? Can't you see how good of a man he is and how much he wants to help? Why don't you care about him rather than just his qualifications? How could you be so rude in light of all of his good qualities? Shouldn't you give him the chance to perform surgery on your loved one? After all, you really do believe that he wants to help and that his intentions are good. You actually consider it for a short moment. Then a fresh wave of panic washes over your loved one as they feel their life slipping away. They scream in pain "Fuck off, I need a doctor! Now!"  The stranger looks confused and hurt and walks away.

This scenario can be seen as an allegory about the way the world works. Most of us act just like that stranger who just wants to help. We're confused about why people don't see us for the good people we are. In this allegory, the world is the couple in terrible need of help and they're not going to care about how good of a person you are, only about what you can do. By far, this is a very imperfect analogy, but it hints at a truth that most of us are unwilling to accept. If you had come to the couple with the skills they needed they would have treated you a lot better. It would not have been because of who you are, but because of what you could do. It seems that we often find ourselves in situations where we're rejected or we feel used once it becomes clear that we no longer meet the needs of someone we care about. But we all need things, we all use people, we just want to be treated fair and with respect. In the allegory, the couple needed something very specific and it was irrelevant whether the person who was able to facilitate the help they needed was honorable or not. The person didn’t even need to be polite… just competent. It may seem cold when the world tells you to fuck off and call 911, but that has nothing to do with who you are. It's only about what you can do for them.

And why does the world seem so cold? Are our needs really so drastic that compassion is irrelevant? Maybe. There certainly are very compassionate people in this world, but we only recognize them when they do something useful. Thing is, that's okay. We don't know people by who they are, we know them by what they do. To get the world's respect we need to do things the world needs and the world is full of people who need things, lots of different things. So many different things that nearly all of us can find something useful to do that speaks the truth about who we are. People need houses built, we need food to eat, we need entertainment, fulfilling sexual relationships, loving friends, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and a million other things that each of us can meet in our own way. By virtue of the fact that you were born, you signed a contract to help a world in need and in return get your needs met. It wasn't something any of us chose, but we became a part of a system, a system purely utilitarian and compassionless; a system known as society.

This system we live in isn't fair. It's not even close to compassionate, but most of the time it works. It can reward bad behaviors such as greed but only when we remain unaware of its effects. When we know something is wrong, we don't have to care about who it hurts because in the end, we only care about ourselves. We only need to see ourselves in other people to see that, if we allow injustice to others, we allow it to eventually be brought upon ourselves. We know little about the inner lives of other people, but we know ourselves. We only need to treat other people the way that we would like to be treated in order to treat other people well. Seen in this way, kindness can be an act that is inherently selfish and yet it is still kindness. When we see each other as being in this world together, we can get the things we need. It's not an easy lesson to teach seeing as no one really cares about anyone but themselves. But it is in our self-interest to teach it to one another and it makes me optimistic about our collective future.

Either you will go about your life working to make this system you were born into better, or you will complain and suffer at the inhumanity of it all. You could become a hermit and rebel against society, living off the land far away in a cabin, recycling your waste,  growing vegetables and feeding some livestock, living far away from any other human being, feeling disconnected from the insanity and selfishness of the world. But don't get it twisted; you're still a part of the system. As much as any of us would like to get away from it all, what other people do will still affect you. If war comes you'll still be a combatant, if disease or natural disaster strikes, you won't have the resources you need to survive. And though you may not see how you can change the world, you have a much better chance if you participate in it. We need solutions to our many problems. By helping others, you help yourself in the process. The task of seeing those needs met is done by learning a useful set of skills. You may not see how it helps the world at large in the long term, but you don't even need to see that. It makes life easier in the short term because the world needs people to contribute and you will be rewarded. No matter how kind, giving, and polite you are, you need to have something to offer to others or people will not respect you. You will be poor, you will be alone, you will be left out in the cold, you will complain, and no one will care.

There is a certain truth about the virtue of selfishness. If one truly cares about himself then he will want to make the world a better place because he must live in that world too. If you really see the interconnected nature of humanity, that regardless of how far you run away that the actions of other people will still affect you, you will see that improving the lives of others and caring about the planet as a whole will, in some way, further your own self-interests. When you choose a charity to contribute to, don't you want to feel good about it? Admit that it is not only about wanting to help those in need, but to see yourself as the type of person who is helping those in need, and feel good about it. Knowing that you're making a difference in the world is very fulfilling. We rarely see this as transactional or selfish, but in some ways it is.

There are basically two ways to respond to the ways of the world, we get bitter or we get motivated. We need all types of people to fulfill the various yearnings that we have. This variety breeds within itself conflict, but without it we couldn't grow. The fact that we have to struggle to survive is what makes us so strong. Not all of us have the same experiences of the struggle and even if we did we wouldn't respond to it in the same way. I'm certainly glad that the struggle has ultimately inspired me, but I certainly understand the impulse to withdraw. I imagine that some people will want to respond to my argument with Tyler Durden's famous speech from Fight Club saying, "You are not your job." But actually… you are. Granted, your "job" and your means of making money might not be the same thing but in both cases you are little more to the world than the sum total of your useful skills.

Being a good mother is a job that requires a lot of skills, it may not make you money, but it is an important job. If you're a woman who raises a child, you are a mother. That may not be all that you are, but you are your job. A job is no more than something we can do that is useful to other members of society. It doesn't necessarily have to involve money. Make no mistake, your "job", the useful thing you do, is exactly who you are to other people. Tyler said, "You are not your job," but he also founded and ran a successful soap company and became the head of an international social and political movement. He was also his job. In fact that is all he was. I think a lot of people missed that beautiful irony at the end of the movie, especially if they happened to agree with him.

Remember when Chick-fil-A came out against gay marriage? Remember how much the protesters got the attention of the country to stop eating their product? Remember how the company folded in response to such outrageous bigotry from its founder and CEO? No? Neither do I. In fact, they still continue to sell millions of chicken sandwiches every day, and it's not because the country doesn't care about gay rights, most Americans are on the side of social justice. So why didn't the company fold? Well, obviously it's because no one cares. But why? It's because they do their job of making delicious sandwiches well. And at the end the day that's all that really matters. And as long as we don't feel guilty or feel that we're harming anyone, we don't really care enough to deny ourselves a need that they are fulfilling.

You don't have to like it. I don't like it. I hate it actually. I wish people cared, but that's not how the world works.  People have needs, and thus, assign value to the people who meet them. It is a simple and cold mechanism that gets things done.  If you protest that you're not a shallow capitalist materialistic whore asshole and that you disagree with me about everything I wrote thus far, there is a special place in my heart for you. The world needs you too. The world needs you to disagree with my way of thinking, if only to strengthen the arguments for explaining the transactional nature of society. I certainly don't blame you for feeling the way you do. I hope you find peace in reconciling your view of the world with the way things really work. I hope that you don't lose hope. I hope you find someone who loves you for who you are. And I want to help you.

We hate to think of relationships in such a transactional way, but we often ask singles who want a relationship "So, what exactly do you bring to the table?" I certainly have asked myself that when I was single and most of the time my answers were personality traits. After all, I wanted to find someone who loves me for who I am. But how are they going to know who I am except by what I do? I should have thought about the things I can do for someone who loves me, not just about who I am. Don't write off everyone who rejects you by thinking that they're just being shallow and selfish for not seeing you for who you are, you have to show them. I'm asking you to consider what you have to offer someone that will meet their needs. What makes you a catch? Are you smart? How will that special person know how smart you are if you have no skills that can demonstrate your intelligence? Are you funny? If you can't tell a good joke, how will anyone ever know? Are you interesting in some way? Talented? Ambitious? Creative? All these things are assets in the relationship market, but you must be able to demonstrate those qualities. You can't just say that you're a nice guy, that's pretty much what everyone says. You have to show not tell. 

I'm sorry, I know that this is hard to hear, but if all you can do is list a bunch of traits you have or a bunch of faults you don't have then you're shit out of luck. Thing is, if you really are all those good things, you can find a way to show it. It's up to you to find out how, but don't complain about how people only want stuff from you. You want stuff from them too. It's time you stop seeing that exchange of wants and needs as being victimized. If you're willing to sit quietly and listen in exchange for the chance to be heard, then you demonstrate that you're a good listener. It's a valuable relationship skill to possess. A good conversation is transactional in nature. You have to give in order to get. Let's hope that you have some qualities that many people need or want in their lives. But that isn't enough. If you want to find love start making yourself into the type of person someone would want to be around by learning how to demonstrate those inner qualities.

See how that works? Everyone needs something. One good way to get your needs met, even to find love and happiness, is to make yourself useful. You may still ask "But why can't I find someone who just loves me for me?" The answer is, you can, but other people can only know who you are by what you do. To them, you will always be what you do. So make sure that what you do is a true reflection of who you are. But because in many ways we are mysterious to ourselves, it doesn’t encapsulate all that you are. Still, the good news is, if you throw enough energy and hours of preparation into learning how to do something well you can pretty much get good at anything. The trick is that you have to know yourself well enough that what you do best reflects who you are. And if you learn how to do that, people will love you for who you are. Sort of...

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