This is a perfect description of what we seekers are trying to get at. The thing-in-itself. We usually take our silly little words so seriously that we mistake them for reality. (From xkcd.com if you couldn’t tell!)
People are people. This should be a self-evident truth. It is such an obvious statement that you might wonder why I would bother writing it, let alone writing an entire post about it. It is a tautological statement in the same way that “A = A” is. It should therefore inform our every interaction with other people and with the way we ourselves act in the world.
And yet usually this is not the case. We do not treat people like people.We do not view people like people. We create models and stories of other people based on our own experiences and then we apply these models and stories without even realizing it. In these models we might expect a person to be super- or sub-human. We might expect him to be needlessly cruel or to be a saint.
We imagine perfection is a thing that both exists and can be applied to other humans.
But people are people.
And what a person is is a mammal. A primate, of the family Hominidae and the genus Homo. Humans are bipedal. They have well-developed brains that make them more intelligent and emotionally aware than other animals.
The things that people are not, however, would comprise a very long list. People are not “rational”. People are not “good” or “evil”. How could they be these things? People can behave in a rational manner, and they engage in good and bad behaviors. To say anything beyond that is to ascribe one’s own story of the world to other people.
Applying your story of the world to other people is particularly silly because you yourself are a person, a bipedal primate with a well-developed brain, subject to the same forces as the other primates.
This is not to say that our capacity for making models of the world is a strictly bad thing. If we were unable to develop models of the world we would never be able to learn or to grow mentally and socially. A baby is a human being with a brain that can not yet develop models of the world. As we grow older, everyone will invariably develop and utilize mental models when interacting with the world. This is a fundamental part of being a primate with a well-developed brain.
The difficulty when interacting with other people is that our internal model of them will by definition be incomplete. Only by spending years in a close and honest relationship with another human being can your model even come close to being an accurate representation of them, and we rarely have that luxury.
For example, your boss is not just your boss, just as you don’t see yourself as strictly an employee. Your neighbor is not just your neighbor – after all your neighbor views you as the one who is the neighbor!
Try as you might, there really is no other way to interact with other people though. We are all programmed to make assumptions and to simplify complexity; it is in our very nature. This is why liberals and conservatives don’t get along. This is why people from different religious tribes are always using the latest in military technology to blow each other up. This is why I hate the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In all of these examples, people are forgetting that other people are in fact people. We are lumping other people into groups and assigning traits that are ultimately simplifications and caricatures to them.Then we view these formerly individual people as being nothing more than members of a group that has certain characteristics that we don’t like and forgetting that we made the whole thing up in the first place!
The only solution I have found is very simple in theory, but in reality is very hard to do. It is this: remember that everyone wants to avoid suffering and treat them accordingly. Essentially, the golden rule. This is a truth that applies to all human beings. We do not want to suffer.
This helps simplify dealing with other people as the complex creatures they are without reverting to invented stereotypes. This is something that can be applied to everyone you meet. If you are in a position to cause suffering to a fellow human being, refrain. If you are in a position to alleviate suffering for a fellow human being, by all means do it.
This can be a very difficult thing to do because societies do not generally encourage thinking this way. It is not always explicit, although it can be, but societies develop in opposition to one another. Humans have a very strong tendency towards empathy, and I would argue that it is even stronger than our more selfish desires, but empathy diminishes as it is applied to humans outside one’s tribe. This is why mental models of other people become increasingly simplistic when applied to people and groups we don’t generally interact with. We don’t understand them so we don’t empathize with them.
In the modern world there are many more tribes than there ever used to be and this, I think, is why we get into such trouble with one another, why we’re always outraged and offended. I myself belong to the California tribe; the Bay Area tribe; the East Bay tribe; the creative-type tribe; the musician tribe; the prefer beer to wine tribe; the married tribe; the male tribe; the spiritual-not-religious tribe; etc, etc, etc.
It all gets terribly confusing, so I imagine that to a fundamentalist Christian from the deep south I would be referred to as a member of the tribe of San Francisco, with all that that entails. Just like my mental picture of this imaginary person is as a member of tribe Deep South, with all that that entails.
It’s not that these models are necessarily wrong – after all stereotypes often exist for a reason – but they are incomplete. And if we are not careful, they will prevent us from relating to one another as human beings, as people.
Which is stupid. Because we can quibble about a great many things, but not about the fact that people from the Deep South and people from San Francisco, by virtue of being people, are in fact people.
This has strayed a bit closer to politics than I would like to go. There is a reason people in polite society do not discuss religion and politics, unless they happen to be in a room full of people from the same tribe. Politics and religion are the two most powerful tools for creating tribes. (As any good member of a tribe will tell you, their kind is driven by reason and a desire to do good, unlike the members of the other tribe who are driven by emotion at best and evil at worst.)
But people are people. Nothing more or less. All people create mental models of the world and the people in it. You yourself do this. It is unavoidable. But remember that the less you understand a person on a personal level, his idiosyncrasies, his fears, his hopes, and his failures, the less accurate your model will be.
So simplify. People are people. People want to avoid suffering. If you can relate to your fellow Man in this way, you are doing good.
But then, you’re a person, so you probably can’t. Speaking as a fellow person, I certainly can’t. That’s okay. There’s no such thing as a perfectly kind and empathetic person, since we made those things up too. The only perfectly kind people who ever existed were largely fictional, like Jesus or Buddha.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. People are people. We just need to try our best to remember that.
I used the restroom at work today. In fact, I use the restroom at work every day. To be perfectly honest, I use the restroom at work three to four times a day. I work four days a week, so I use the restroom at work twelve to sixteen times a week. Around one hundred people work in my office, so assuming their bathroom habits are similar to mine, that is more than twelve hundred trips to the restroom in my office each week. (It kind of makes you wonder how any work gets done.)
Each time I use the restroom I wash my hands – honestly! – and when I am done washing my hands, I dry my hands on the paper towels my work is kind enough to provide. I have written elsewhere about the insanity of delivering fresh water hundreds of miles to facilities where the water is treated and tested to ensure absolute safety and purity before finally being piped to our homes where we piss in it or pour it onto our lawns. So I won’t go into that again.
But how about those paper towels? The same principle is at play. Trees are cut down and processed and packaged and shipped and delivered and stocked. And at the end of this cycle we absentmindedly grab three pieces of what used to be a tree, rub our wet hands on them, then throw them away. This is convenient, I suppose, but convenience is hardly the best metric by which to measure something.
We live in a society that, though it doesn’t like to admit it, values convenience over anything else. Not that long ago, in evolutionary terms, an adult human had to walk several miles a day, digging through dirt, picking fruit, and hunting in order to eat. Now you can walk to your car, drive to a fast food dispensary, get things to put in your mouth without ever leaving your car, drive home, and walk to your couch to consume said items.
This is the definition of convenience.
I realize this is a tired complaint. Everyone knows being sedentary and eating fast food is bad for your body. Your body evolved to move and does not do well with convenience. However, it’s not just bad for your body – it’s bad for your soul or your spirit or whatever you want to call the little spark that makes a human being a human being.
It is impossible to find value and meaning in convenience. Achieving something only counts for anything if it is an actual achievement. Someone who takes a helicopter to the top of a mountain and someone who climbs the same mountain are going to see and experience very different things when they reach the top. The view will not be the same because a view isn’t just what your eyes see.
Convenience devalues the world and it devalues us. It feels good in the basest sense of the word to live a life of convenience, but it feels good in the true sense of the word to live a life that is inconvenient. A life in which you work and think and create. A convenient life can never be your own. It can only be packaged for you and marketed to you.
What does this have to do with paper towels? Nothing in particular. Paper towels are just one facet of our convenient lives that we don’t even notice because we have grown so acclimated to convenience.
I would argue that by wiping your hands on a tree that died just so you don’t have to wipe your hands on a towel, without at least giving pause to acknowledge that that is what you’re doing, is to do a great disservice to the world. It is to be unthinkingly wasteful which in the very recent past was a sin. It is to take without thinking about the act of taking. It is to be ungrateful.
We are very lucky to live when we do, but this is a double-edged sword. Effort used to be required in life. Now it takes effort to exert effort. But it is well worth it. It is good for the environment and society, and it is good for you.
For the past few years I have spent most Thursday nights at a small brewery in my town called Ale Industries. Thursday night is open mic night. Music starts around six and ends around nine although, because it is a gathering of musicians, those times are subject to change.
Open mics are great. Anyone can play. If you get there early and sign up you can probably play quite a few songs. If you get there late you may only get to squeeze in one or two.
There are older guys who can rock the blues. Young women who write and sing beautiful songs. All sorts of performers in between. There are awesome bartenders who everyone loves. A host who sings songs of sex and heartache and occasionally the Muppets. And of course, delicious craft brewed beer.
I have met many good people there. After a few years it feels like an extended family.
And come January, it won’t be there anymore. Ale Industries is doing well. They have outgrown the little hole-in-the wall commercial building with a roll up door that has been their home since they first opened. They are moving their brewery to Oakland, over the hill and twenty minutes away.
Oakland isn’t far, but it’s enough of a drive that I won’t be able to make it regularly and when I go I’ll probably miss some of my fellow regulars who maybe also won’t be so regular.
The owners have found a location for a taproom in town, but it will be different. It will have new smells, a new layout, a whole new vibe. Which is fine – life is nothing if not change.
What I sat down to write about, what I’m finally getting around to, is the idea of change and memories. If you stop and think about it you will find that nothing ever exists but the present, the moment you are experiencing right now. That moment is razor thin. And it never stays still. Or maybe it does and we’re the ones that move.
In any case, what you did today, what you are doing right now, is in a real sense already a memory. Life is fleeting because the present is fleeting.
Living in the present is something that I am told the sages can do. For the rest of us, it is only during those occasional beautiful or terrifying moments, when you realize how small and fragile and strange and impossible your life is, that you truly understand the present moment and how precious and transitory it is. You can feel it deep in your bones.
I feel it now at the Ale Industries open mic. The regulars know that pretty soon we won’t be going to our old hangout, won’t be seeing each other in the same place anymore. We know that our routines and lives will, in a small way, change forever.
Usually we ignore change, even though it is all around us, driving everything and everyone in the world. Only when we look back over a year or two, or experience a big life event, do we notice the fact of change. For the most part we live our lives on autopilot, forgetting or ignoring the changes we are going through and the memories we are creating.
It is such a difficult thing. We may claim to embrace change, and clamor for new and exciting experiences and distractions, but deep down we want to control the change in our lives. We don’t want it to control us. We want to hold on to the pieces of the past we would rather not lose. But it doesn’t work that way.
The world will always change beyond our ability to control it. I suppose that’s what keeps it interesting. And somewhere in the midst of the drama and the laughter and the chaos of change is where we build our lives. We draw a circle around our memories and call the story they tell “me”.
I will miss Ale Industries and the time I have spent there. It already feels like I am walking through a memory when I am there. And yet life as always moves on. There will be new places to go, new people to meet. New songs to write and new memories to create. Therein lies the beauty of life.
In the words of the inimitable Jim Anchower, hola, amigos. I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. But I’ve been busy!
I’ve been writing fiction lately, though none of it is ready for sharing. I am writing a silly book about zombies to try to get my writing juices flowing as well as a bunch of short stories about, in no particular order, fraternities, war, and the end of the world.
(If I were to write one book about the subjects it would be something like: “Why The Fact That Men Who Were In Fraternities Run Things Should Concern Us.”)
But on to the seeking!
I’ve spent a lot of time reading the works of Huang Po who was an old Zen master but is now dead. It has completely revitalized my seeking. I was inspired by a user in r/zen who sometimes seems like he is trolling and sometimes seems like he is trying to be helpful. The internet is a funny place.
He directed me to the writings of the old guys, guys like Bodhidharma, Huang Po, and Hui Neng. He’s not a big fan of Dogen or Shunryu Suzuki or spiritual entertainers like Alan Watts.
I remain unconvinced on the latter point – I could read and listen to Mr. Watts all day – but I am deeply in his debt for pointing me towards Huang Po who spends an entire book just pointing towards IT, the Absolute, Tao, God, Mind, whatever you want to call it.
“That which is before you is it. Begin to reason about it and you will at once call into error.”
“To say that Mind is no-mind implies something existent. Let there be a silent understanding and no more.”
“The matter is thus – by thinking of something you create an entity and by thinking of nothing you create another. Let such erroneous thinking perish utterly, and then nothing will remain for you to go seeking!”
Beautiful and wonderful! How could it be otherwise, and yet how often we forget!
This is an unfocused post because I am feeling unfocused today. I hope you are experiencing an optimal level of focus however you might define it.
Here is a picture of an otter in outer space.
I had a good conversation with a fellow seeker about Facebook the other day. We were running through the normal litany of woes against the site when he pointed out a phenomenon I had not noticed before.
He pointed out that when he had Facebook (he has quit the site) he knew what his friends were up to. All the time. Which means that when he ran into a friend he hadn’t seen in a while, the conversation-starting question, “So what’s new?” was entirely rhetorical and he found himself not paying any attention to the response.
I had never noticed this before but it is largely true! The whole idea of catching up with friends is rendered mostly moot by a constant stream of updates from them. Which is a damn shame because I would rather hear how a friend is doing over a pint than as a blurb in my “news feed” and yet am probably less inclined to do the former now that the latter is default.
Just wanted to share a friend’s good food for thought. Now back to social networkin’!