Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Bigger Picture

One of the things I have the most trouble with, when it comes to controlling my frustrations and emotions, is people. I have a great deal of hope in humanity, but people scare me to death. That’s really not as crazy as it sounds, when you think about it. As a species we have usually done very well with moving forward in relation to the Big Picture. If you take criteria like Life Expectancy, Quality of Life, Quality of the World Around You (or even Awareness of the World Around You), and similar, related issues, and then take a couple of snapshots of different periods in history at random, the more recent point will almost always have improved in comparison with the more distant point. The March of Progress tends to keep moving forward. The trouble is, it tends to move forward despite the kicking and wailing protests of a determined minority. No matter what the improvement might be, there is always someone (and usually far too many someones) chomping at the bit to go backward.

I’m not talking about differences of belief or politics here. Those are going to happen, and I expect that those are always going to happen. Hashing out those differences is often how we accomplish the moving forward. No, I’m talking about the people who still believe that their beliefs or politics justify hurting someone with different beliefs or politics. I’m talking about people who actually mock or revel in someone else’s pain because of differences in beliefs or politics. Sadly, and all too often, I’m talking about good people who make excuses for interfering in other people’s lives because of beliefs and politics.

I’m not going to go into specific examples here because that’s not what this is about. Besides, if you’re someone who would learn from the examples then you probably don’t need me to list them, and if you need me to list them … Again, I will refrain from making certain direct, negative comments. If you read between the lines then you know what I just said, and if you’re capable of reading between the lines then you understand what I just said.

My beliefs govern me. Your beliefs govern you. Where the two intersect, we can and should come to mutually determined arrangements. Where the two do not intersect, we can and should each mind our own business. This should be remarkably easy to understand, yet it never has been, or at least people don’t act like it has ever been understood. I suspect that more people understand this idea than let on, but some people really like the idea of being In Charge, and refuse to acknowledge anything that undermines their ability to be In Charge. To be fair, these people don’t usually realize the harm they are causing, but that is largely because they don’t want to realize. They avoid seeing, as though reality will just disappear if they don’t look at it.

No one can live my life but me, and I can’t live anyone’s life but my own. It should be obvious that this is true for everyone, but this is another of those obvious things that some people try very hard to not see. Funny thing is, we would actually have less things to argue about if more people woke up to this realization. Think about it. Watch the news some night - if you can stand to do so anymore - and count up how many reported conflicts were not caused by someone trying to interfere in someone else’s life when things would have been just fine - for everyone involved! - if people had just minded their own business. I bet you don’t need the fingers on more than one hand. I bet you even have fingers left over on that one hand.

That’s not to say that we don’t talk about the things we think are wrong - that is, after all, exactly what I am doing here - but talking is not pushing. Talking is not interfering. Talking usually works better, and with less negative side effects. Whenever you start pushing, the person being pushed tends to push back. That is just human nature. If you want to accomplish positive change, there are more positive ways of doing so. If you are determined to push, that may be because you are not as interested in positive change as you would like people to believe.

I cannot rule out force entirely, though. I know that is the position that has been staked out by some of the most well known thinkers in this field, but I cannot agree. Not entirely, at any rate. Life is rarely about extremes, and there is an exception to almost every rule. Force will almost always cause more trouble than it’s worth, but when force is going to happen anyway, and a carefully applied opposing force can stop it while limiting that trouble, I believe that such opposing force is not only justified but may actually be necessary. If I believe in doing no harm, and I can stop harm that is being done but refuse to do so because doing so would require some application of force, am I really preserving life, or am I preserving my own ego?

It’s a tricky question that requires dedication of thought and mindfulness of action. It has no easy answer, and no one size application. It is hard and, unfortunately, that is why many people won’t consider it. People like their answers to be all one thing or another. That takes less work. You cannot live fully awake and mindful, though, if you are relying on easy boxes for your answers. That’s how you go through life on autopilot, and going through life on autopilot is not living.

As someone who has spent years going over this question from as many angles as I can find, I still can’t answer it for you. I can only barely answer it for me, and even that not every time. I told you it wasn’t easy. I can offer some things that I have figured out, though, and you can see how they fit. Every action has repercussions. Every action, without exception. If I pick up a head of lettuce from the produce stand, someone else cannot choose that head of lettuce. Most of our life’s choices are at that level. They will create ripples, but they are not ripples that will be noticed or have lasting consequences. If I take that lettuce and use it to prepare a meal for someone who has no food, this will be more noticed and have more lasting repercussions, hopefully of the positive variety. If I take that lettuce away from someone who has no other food, this too will be more noticed and have more lasting repercussions, though almost certainly of the negative variety. Everything we do can be filtered through a variety of lenses, and it is up to each of us as individuals to make certain that we filtering honestly. Are my actions helping, or am I telling myself that my actions are helping because this is what I want to do, and I don’t want to do harm?

It is unfortunately true that too many people spend too much time in that latter category. It isn’t that we want to do harm, but we also don’t want to change what we are doing, so we rationalize it into something else instead. As noted science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein once said, “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” We are absolutely fantastic at making excuses. That may be the one skill that the human race, as a whole, has truly and completely perfected. When we want something, or believe that something is right, we will perform the most amazing acts of mental gymnastics to avoid seeing any other possibility.

Good people hurt good people every day because of this. We get so fixed in our way of seeing things that we don’t see what that is doing to anyone else. We are certain that we are doing what is best, when we would admit that we don’t always know what is best if it were some other situation. It may be impossible to set a one-size-fits-all box around when it is right or wrong to interfere, but I can tell you one thing that should at least always raise a red flag: If you are causing harm or pain to someone who is not, you need to re-examine your motives and actions.

I am responsible for my behavior and no one else’s. I can’t control how someone else lives, only how I respond to it. I try to keep this in mind and not let the troubles of the world weigh me down too much. I address what I believe I can fix, let go of what is beyond my control, and try to honestly remember the difference between the two. Sometimes it is especially difficult though. I live in this world, and I am affected by what happens in this world, whether I can control it or not. Sometimes what I see happening makes me despair and almost consider giving up. I won’t give up though. That’s just not who I am. I will write about it. I will spend time with people I love. I will watch a sunset. I will do what I can to try to make the world a better place. I will breathe. Most of all, I will breathe.

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