When I was about to graduate from high school, my friend Jeanne bestowed on me – in most dramatic fashion – a book called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was a very popular little book about evolving until you become your perfect self. Its teachings about freedom of thought and expression reflected the times and appealed most especially to young people for whom life was about to become an adventure. I was 16 years old. And I decided, after reading it, that I was so completely evolved that I was destined to die before my 18th birthday.
My younger sister, only 11 years old but clever as a whip, declared that when I turned 18 she would throw me a “Guess What, You’re Still Alive!” party.
I look back on that time with amusement. I was only a child – and a particularly immature and naïve one at that – and I knew nothing about what it meant to become a fully formed person. I had no conception of the tangled choices we all must make as we wend our way through a complex world.
The humbling coup de grâce to my adolescent ego would come the following year. Jonathan Livingston Seagull had aroused in me a full-bodied curiosity about knowledge and human existence, and I ended up taking an introductory philosophy class in my first year of college. I ate it up. The works of Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Kant were like manna to my hungry young intellect. And when I aced the class, I figured that I was the consummate intellectual. I truly thought I was all that and a bag of chips.
So I decided, the next semester, to bolster my scholarly résumé by taking an upper- division philosophy class. This is where the humiliation comes in. The course was called Epistemology – the nature of knowledge. I strutted into that classroom with absolutely no idea of the brilliance of the typical philosophy student’s mind. I looked around at my classmates and was a bit taken aback, first of all, by how old they looked. I had only just turned 17 years old at this point, and the guys sported beards and an aura of great wisdom. The professor spoke for an hour that first day and handed out lists of potential topics for the five oral reports we were expected to deliver that semester. I did not understand one word the professor said. I did not understand anything my classmates said. I did not understand the titles of the textbooks. I did not understand the syllabus. I did not even understand what any of the topics meant. As the class came to an end, the students eagerly raced up to the professor’s desk to sign up for their preferred oral report themes. I got through the line, looked sheepishly at the professor, and dropped the class like a hot potato.
And that, my friends, was the last time I thought I was all that and a bag of chips.
In the decades since, I’ve held onto my (admittedly very simplistic 17-year-old’s) view of the teachings of Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century German philosopher. Among other things, Kant believed that our behavioral decisions should be based on this categorical moral imperative: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. In other words, ask yourself, “What if everybody did that?” Then act – or refrain from acting – accordingly, even if it is contrary to your inclinations. If it would be wrong for everyone to commit that act, or if the results would be unsatisfactory, the act has no moral worth.
At least, that’s what I think he meant. (Where are you when I need you, Walter Lammi?)
I recall the anecdote I related a few blog posts ago, in which my mother had to point out to me the immorality of my ripping off the phone company for long-distance calls I made from a phone booth, even though I thought my measly $3 transgression wouldn’t make a dent in AT&T’s profits. After all, I wasn’t a big corporation stealing millions from the phone company. What I didn’t consider then was, “What if everybody did that?” And Kant likely would have added that if an action committed by one entity is wrong, the identical action committed by another entity is wrong as well.
Let’s say that you’re strolling through Golden Gate Park holding a banana peel. You’re unable to find a trash can, so you decide to just toss the peel into the shrubs. After all, you rationalize, it’s a big park, and one little banana peel isn’t going to make much of a difference among the flowers. And perhaps it isn’t. But what if everybody did that? What if the park were to suddenly become overrun with everyone’s discarded garbage? What gives you the right to think that you – and you alone – can simply be the exception to the rule to fit your selfish needs?
I have another example, and it involves my single biggest pet peeve. I simply don’t understand why people walk two or three abreast on the sidewalk and refuse to fall behind each other in line when someone is walking towards them. For some reason, they believe that they are under no obligation to make room on the sidewalk for anyone else. This means that people walking towards them must step into the street or walk into a tree because there is nowhere else to go. What kind of mentality is this? And how do they know that the people walking toward them don’t have the same selfish notion?
I was shopping at Stonestown once and this happened to me, except that we were all pedestrians inside one of those sidewalk construction areas that involve a temporary wooden walkway with plywood sides from which you cannot escape. Three teenage girls were coming towards me, and I could imagine the whole scene unfolding before the collision even occurred. There was room for only one person going in each direction, but these girls with attitudes were not about to walk single file. They were so clueless that they did not remotely anticipate the possible consequences of their behavior. I, however, saw the whole thing coming and braced myself. Sure enough, one of the girls plowed into me head-on. The impact was pretty formidable. “Ow!” she yelped. “You b—h!”
Where in the wide world of sports had she expected me to go? Was I supposed to rappel up the plywood?
More importantly, what if everyone did that? We’d all be crashing into each other willy-nilly!
On a more serious note, I suppose what I’m lamenting these days is what I believe to be our culture of insolence. A lack of respect for both established and unwritten laws and conventions, coupled with people’s self-besotted embrace of their own wonderfulness, has made for a culture in which the population feels entitled to self-serving behavior at any expense.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can think more broadly.
If you stand in the grocery express line with 63 items, just because you think the world will not come to an end if you do so, think about the fact that if everybody did that, the notion of an express line would become worthless.
If your goal is to avoid paying any taxes whatsoever, think about what would happen in this country if everyone did that, and ask yourself why you’re entitled to good roads and clean water and are not obligated to pay for them while you expect everyone else to do so.
If you think that you should be able to break the law and text while you’re driving, you’d better hope that the person who needs to reflexively get out of your way is not texting, too.
If the airline has a rule about bringing a double-wide stroller onto a narrow plane, and you decide that you should be entitled to break that rule just because it would inconvenience you, imagine every paying passenger toting an enormous object onto a plane. Think of the chaos that would ensue. Not to mention how difficult it would be to get to the restroom.
A few years ago, my manager Tony told me the most hilarious story about his wife Kay’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure trying to make a trip to see him. I probably have many of the details wrong, except for the very-real punch line. Tony was working in San Francisco and his wife Kay was still living temporarily somewhere else. Perhaps it was Arcata. Kay would take a small, local airline down to see Tony on the weekend. She left one morning in her van to get to the tiny airport on time. Rushing along, she came to a stop sign on a remote country road in the wee small hours of the morning and, thinking no one on earth was anywhere around, zipped through the stop sign. Immediately, out of nowhere, a police officer appeared and stopped her to issue a ticket. This, of course, was an unforeseen delay. After she got on the road again, she was stricken with a flat tire. Along came another officer, or maybe it was the same one, who offered to help her. Unfortunately, the officer was a slow talker and a lollygagger, and although he fixed the tire, all the while she stood there thinking that she could have fixed it herself in much less time. Then the details get a bit blurry. They involved her finally getting to the airport and checking in, but then going to Costco to get a new tire. I believe she may have missed her original flight and had a couple of hours to kill before the next one. At Costco, I remember only that there was some sort of problem with the credit card, and that some nuns were involved, and that she made it back to the airport for her flight with only minutes to spare. However, as she approached the gate – the very same one where she’d checked in a couple of hours earlier – she noticed that the employees were all huddled around crying. Then she saw the sign on the counter: “ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED. THIS AIRLINE HAS GONE OUT OF BUSINESS.”
[Let me take a moment to control my guffawing.]
Aside from my recollection of this story as one of the funniest tales I’ve ever heard, I frankly often wonder whether I would have put on the brakes at that first stop sign. Maybe I would have gone blithely on through, just as Kay (one of the sweetest people ever) did and just as most people would do. Then again, my friends remind me that I am the most law-abiding person on the planet. Okay, perhaps I would have rolled through the stop sign. A “California stop.” After all, if everybody felt that they had the right to choose whether or not it was necessary to stop at a traffic signal, there would be anarchy. Even before dawn in the middle of nowhere.
We live in a world in which very few think deeply. And I don’t mean deeply like the geniuses in the Epistemology class. I mean that we make snap judgments. We see a 30-second video and instantly ascribe guilt and malevolence to a situation we know nothing about. We consider a public policy issue for 30 seconds and decide that it was proposed for nefarious purposes. We see a histrionic headline on a sketchy website and share it as if it were gospel. We believe other people to be morally bankrupt just because they don’t agree with us. And we don’t contemplate the universal implications of our behavior because at times we are simply too selfish to do that.
I fear that we’ve become immature, sophomoric versions of our best selves. But we’re adults. We’re not 16-year-olds reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, listening to Tom Rush, and writing bad poetry in our bedrooms late at night.
We’re not all that and a bag of chips. We haven’t achieved perfection and we’re not always right.
But most of us, while fraught with imperfections, are hungering for the same things out of life. If only we could consider the background, the facts, and the nuances before making judgments. If only we could break through our own self-involvement and consider the bigger picture.
Read more. Think deeply. Act universally.