Saturday, June 27, 2009

Uncommonly Rational Thoughts

Many of the problems of this world are based purely in irrationality. These same problems are often products of impulsive human behavior. We frequently ask why other people don't take the time to let cooler heads prevail and employ common sense instead of instantly reacting to a situation without thinking the matter through. Believing that people ought to behave rationally as a matter of course---when they do not, we are left with perplexing questions that provide no easy answers. In truth, one cannot discern sense from the senseless. Emotionally charged matters cannot be explained by cold hard facts, lines of logic, or methodical analysis.

The more education we have, the more we believe that humans are capable of solving their disputes rationally and that since irrational behavior makes no logical sense, so there's no reason for it to even exist. Education preaches rational thought and rational discourse. Rationality as a construct goes hand in glove with the civilized impulse and we often pride ourselves when we willfully substitute raw emotional response for reasoned contemplation. As a result, when nonsensical behavior or foolish reaction bubbles to the surface, the first question we ask ourselves is frequently---"Why?"

Politicians are no less human than we are. The recent behavior of some of them has provided the opportunity for much disbelief. For example, why did South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford concoct an elaborate lie to his wife, the press, and his own staff about his own whereabouts that was so ill-conceived that it forced him to come clean with where he really had been? Why did Sarah Palin respond so indignantly to an admittedly third-rate joke about one of her daughters? Why did she craft a rambling written acceptance of David Letterman's apology for the joke that included an incredibly weird and totally unrelated passage citing those who serve in the military? Why did Texas Governor Rick Perry imply that his state had the right to secede from the Union? Why was Michele Bachmann even elected? Why do any number of our elected representatives say incredibly stupid things from time to time that completely boggle the mind?

Dumb political decisions aside, I thought I might provide a personal example from my own life as a means of comparison. As I might have alluded to on this site before, my mother was an elementary school teacher for most of my childhood and early adolescence. The bane of her existence was almost never the children, her students. Instead, the metaphorical fly in the ointment was a particular kind of parent, one who entertained the willful delusion that their sainted child couldn't possibly be acting out and couldn't possibly be a behavior problem. Parents like these refused to think rationally, instead clinging madly to an egocentric and narcissistic belief that since they themselves perceived that their own parenting skills were solid, then it stood to reason that their children must be behaving correctly. As their "logic" would have it, clearly the teacher and the school must be in the wrong since it was utterly incomprehensible to them that their child wasn't an angel. Parents like these lived in a fantasy of their own creation, one in which they were never willing to be self-reflective or to undergo the indignity of confronting their own flaws. When one boiled it down, the matter was never really about their children. Instead, it was all about them.

These days, we could easily call this phenomenon "playing the victim". It is a means of displacement, shifting the blame from us to some place else. We all are guilty of it to some degree but the key is being courageous enough to admit to our flaws and faults. Taken too far, we can become masochistic and self-pitying. Taken not far enough, we can lose touch with humility and come to believe in our own inherent perfection. The answer, as you might have guessed, is to be rational. But part of the answer is to also acknowledge that for all of our striving and struggles, occasionally we all act irrationally. So long as we keep that in mind, we'll be able to sympathize with those who make mistakes while not condoning their behavior, either.


Utah Savage said...

I'm going through an emotional roller coaster right now. And as you know that's not so good for those of us of the bipolar persuasion. My best friend has a very aggressive cancer diagnosed late. Now she's in the hospital for pulmonary emboli. I can't imagine outliving her. Nothing much rational going on here. We had a plan that when I went kaboom, she would pick up the pieces. She had durable power of attorney for me for all decisions legal and medical. Now I have to take another look at the puny plans we made and take charge.

Comrade Kevin said...


I will be holding the both of you in the light. I hope everything turns out for the best.