Thursday, April 05, 2007

Why Did You Do That?

Why do other people act the way they do? Actions that you can't explain through values or ideology, like good environmentalists watching TV instead of the sunset. I think everyone has a list of weird inexplicable actions that other people do. For what reason? Personally, and I realize this is a personal failing and I'm working on it, I've always chalked up inexplicable actions to stupidity. The reason the ex-hippies paved over our vegetable garden was because they didn't realize how important it was or how much they'd miss it, nor how easy an alternative solution might have been. They didn't realize because they didn't really want to think about it, or they couldn't.

Since realizing my own explanation I've stopped believing it as much and have become more interested in other people's explanations. There is usually a dominant one, a recurring cognitive theme. For example, R, either through projection or the basic goodness of his nature, thinks that the reason people do bad things like cut you off in traffic is because although they know better, they just don't care. This lack of care is, for him, the ultimate indicator of all wrong actions. R has always been of the Old School of medieval honor and loyalty. For him, Good and Evil are daily battles.

I was recently rereading Catcher in the Rye, and over and over again Holden Caulfield, the dropout kid, explains people's behavior by calling them "phonies". I like that. In their hearts they know better and maybe actually are good people, but they end up doing the exact opposite because of society or because of something mysterious called "growing up". Getting used to being phony. Hunter S. Thompson famously described the Problem with Americans as "Fear and Loathing". Ever the wordsmith, he chose one of the most evocative and perspicacious phrases to describe other's failings. People live in suburbia because they're afraid of the city, afraid of others. And how much of that behavior transitions from fear to a kind of sublimating hatred; no better word exists than "loathing". In contrast, Steinbeck writes about "ignorance of the self" being the root of all evil.

I think he might be on to something with the whole Socrates "self-knowledge" angle, but why stop there? I'm an ecosystem Buddhist, a way of thinking I learned from the Zen/Beat poet Gary Snyder. According to him, we shouldn't judge others because everyone has a part to play in the drama-dream of life. We shouldn't judge warmongers for warmongering anymore than we should judge the hawk for killing rabbits. That is their (ecological) role in this life, a role we can vehemently fight, but not one that we should stoop to judging personally. I'll do my thing, tend to my business, and you do yours. Can any one explanation be more than a crutch? I and those around me deserve better.

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