Sunday, March 25, 2007


Today, at breakfast, a preppy couple in their mid-30s were seated at the table next to me. Just as I arrived they asked the waitress for directions to the bathroom. They left and never came back...they'd done a "dine and dash."

What was shocking about this was the utter RESPECTABILITY of these people. They were yuppies. They had expensive haircuts and nice clothes. They did not fit the stereotype of people who are thrill-seekers or who can't afford breakfast.

But I'm happy that some people still manage to surprise me with their unpleasantness. If I hadn't been shocked by the deadbeat yuppies I'd be worried.

Psychology classes teach you all sorts of pithy factoids that stick with you through the years, and one of them is that people who suffer depression tend to have a more realistic view of things -- world events, future prognoses, the way they're percieved by others -- than do happy people. I've always believed this was true, but I realize now that I've looked at this issue from only one direction...the path to happiness MAY be ignorance (it's bliss, apprently)...

...or maybe the problem is that we have UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS for human behaviour? Maybe we expect too much? The first step may be seeing selfish unpleasantness in human nature, but the NEXT step could be to see this as NATURAL. This could lead to hedonism, but it could also lead to Kate Bush's "Rubberband Girl" philosophy: rather than get depressed and angry when somebody does something supid/annoying/cruel/selfish, just "bend" with it. Why SHOULD you get frustrated by something that's natural? The frustration may come from believing that people SHOULDN'T behave in this way, which is stupid if (like me) you believe that everybody does, now and then.

(An important part of this is to assume that you yourself are just as stupid/annoying/cruel/selfish as the average person, of course).

This all gets uncertain when I acknowledge that I can't be SURE that selfish unpleasantness is a basic human trait; I might just see it because I'm projecting my OWN selfish unpleasantness on others, or maybe I'm just selectively noticing the things that annoy me (see the earlier post about persection and Beelzebaby).

On Saturday night, on the bus home from Toronto, I practiced this theory by tolerating the guy sitting next to me, who smelled like a rotting gym towel. His odour was oppressive and almost made me gag. It washed over me in waves, depending on his posture.

I tried to look at him in two different ways:
  1. He's selfish/stupid/dirty. This is an actual character trait. It stems from him being clueless and not caring what other people think.
  2. He's a bit clueless, but just doesn't wash his clothes often enough. When he got caught in the rain the vaguely smelly bacteria in his sweatpants began to thrive and multiply, and now he smells far worse than he's ever smelled before, and he's acutely embarassed by this.
The first is the pessimistic approach, the second is the optimistic one. Given that the guy seemed totally oblivious to everything and wasn't particularly pleasant -- and that, c'mon, it takes EFFORT to smell that bad -- I had to settle on the first approach ("realistic.")

But then I get frustrated. I think, "what a stupid, selfish jerk! I shouldn't have to sit next to him for 90 minutes while people in other seats sniff around and wonder if it's ME who stinks. He doesn't deserve friends or pleasantness or positive reinforcement!"

And I admit my world philosophy is that people are, generally, selfish and annoying, including myself. But rather than get ANGRY and DEPRESSED about this, shouldn't I be RESIGNED? And I don't mean "resigned" in a bad way, I mean in the same way that I'm resigned to gravity and work and the fact that shoes don't last forever. Shouldn't we all just "bend?"

Caveat: People delight and amaze me, too. I have wonderful friends and I see people behave wonderfully every day. But I always assume that they, like me, have a gunky, nasty little imp sitting inside them. Can anybody say they don't? And can anybody who SAYS they don't be telling the truth or be even remotely self-aware? Hmmm.


Anonymous said...

I had just listened to "Bethsheba 2006 e.4," which, in my iPod's alphabetical song order, is followed by George Harrison announcing the title of the song he was making a demo of, "Beware of Darkness." And then read your essay. And I just finished writing up an exam on one of the most depressing sf novels I know, "A Canticle for Leibowitz."

Short answer is that you are more an Augustinian than a Pelagian; more a Hobbesian than a Rousseau-ian (probably not a word, but I'm too depressed to think of the proper form).

My imp (nasty, brutish, and short as he is) and I are going off into a corner to commiserate.


Adam Thornton said...

It's incredible how, sometimes, music can send a little tendril right into your brain and set off an emotional response. One the way home from Toronto (yes, sitting next to the rotting gym-towel guy) I was listening to David Gilmour's self-titled solo album: organic, rounded, sad, and full of memories of my own childhood. And even the most mundane things I saw outside the bus window were full of new meaning.

I thought "wow, once I stop being so sad, I'll be able to parlay these feelings into something meaningful!" Then I realized that this musical-emotional state is similar to a dream-state, which likewise seems meaningful at the time but later proves to be a weird fool-yourself illusion, so I started listening to The Pipettes instead.

The original sources for "Bethsheba" were recorded shortly after September 11th, when I made it my mission to learn about -- and then solve -- the conflicts in the Middle East. When I realized that I couldn't even BEGIN to think of how to even BEGIN to help, I recorded "Bethsheba." Edit 4 is shortened, re-sequenced, overdubbed, and has the little poem at the end, which was actually about the London Blitz.

And for trivia's sake: the Helicopter is sampled from "Kippur," which I think is the most significant "war movie" I've ever seen. Ten unsensational minutes of a medical rescue team trying to pull a wounded man out of the mud. Tragic.

VanillaJ said...

Here is where I converge with e and Thomas Hobbes. I would like to remind you also that in order to live in society, we have to abide by some rules, and ripping off a waitress is one of those things that is pretty low. I would add further that beyond rules, basic consideration for others should be observed as well. This is the price - or "social contract", or civility or whatever you want to call it - for enjoying the benefits of living in an organized society. I'll be damned to be grateful when people don't act like complete dicks. It's their obligation, dammit!

Adam Thornton said...

Yes, I think it's a question of degree. I don't know whether or not we should be grateful when somebody does something decent, but rather I'm wondering if we should be angry -- as opposed to just accepting -- when somebody does something foul, especially when it doesn't directly affect us personally.

Ripping off the waitress was more extreme example maybe. I'm thinking more of -- say -- the person who almost drives into you while using their cel phone, something that frequently happens to me. I get FURIOUS every time this happens, but -- since I believe this sort of selfish, clueless behaviour is natural -- shouldn't I just shrug?

I guess the physiological response (adrenaline) complicates this.