Thursday, October 05, 2006

Doing the Right Thing

Mouse's post here

has made me think.

Acting right is important to me.

This wasn’t always the case. Like many another child, I was an uncivilized barbarian. I was raised in by authority figures who ruled by smacking kids around, so that was that: right and wrong were reckoned by whether or not you got hit. If you didn’t get hit, it must be right. I still remember the time my little brother was snoring so loudly – he had a cold – and I, furious at not being able to get to sleep (I suffered even as a child from vicious insomnia and it was, perhaps, two in the morning) went into his room and slugged him as hard as I could in the stomach. He ran wailing to my parents’ room. I cowered sullenly on the floor of his room, waiting for the beating I was sure would come. Nothing happened. My mother took him into bed with her. I remember thinking, very clearly, even at that age, the fuck? Then I climbed into his bed and went to sleep.

But around the age of twenty-three or so, after an adolescence spent in the sheerest anarchy – I had long since stopped even pretending to believe in the possibility of god (stopped saying agnostic, in other words, and now said atheist), told people I was an anarchist, shoplifted my cigarettes from the New Orleans drugstores, cut class, swore like a filthy guttersnipe (wait – I still do that – uh), drank and, oh, here’s the worst, refused to vote because it would make no difference anyway, well, I read this book, by Robert Parker.

Yes. A book by Robert Parker changed by life. Spenser the P.I. taught me to act right. Why? Not because Jesus said so. Or even Rabbi Hillel. Or Plato. No. Because you ought to. Just because you should. The existential world according to Spenser.

Why this worked, when Plato hadn’t, and God hadn’t, I can’t say. But I still remember sitting on the levee, smoking my cigarette, my Raleigh bicycle behind me, saying huh. That’s true, you know.

So I started acting right. Later, rereading Plato, learning about the Buddha and Rabbi Hillel, I found they all said the same thing Robert Parker did – that you should act right because it makes the world a better place and because you have to live in the world, don’t you, you idiot? Do you want to live in a better world or a worse world? Well, obviously, then, you should act right, shouldn’t you?

So don’t go around torturing people. Don’t go around polluting your own water. Be nice to your neighbors. Practice random acts of kindness. Recycle. Forgive your enemies.

It’s that last one I have so much trouble with. I suspect most of us do – it’s a human thing. Someone harms us, we want to harm back. (This doesn’t mean, mind you, that it’s a good thing, or a bad thing. That a thing is part of the human tool kit says nothing about whether it is useful or not. An example: Many of us like sweet foods. Another: Many of us like to do sex. A third: Heights and large shapes looming from the dark give some of us an adrenalin rush. These are all part of the human tool kit. So is the consumption of sweets, the act of doing a great deal of sex, and the fear of high places useful behavior? Is it useful behavior in 2006? Was it useful behavior in 10,000 BCE?) When someone harmed us in 10,000 BCE, was harming them back useful behavior? Was it useful behavior in the small group we lived in? Is it useful behavior now?

I like “useful” by the way, rather than “right” or “wrong” because I think that helps focus on why we ought to do things: not because some giant sky-bunny might approve or disapprove or cast us into a lake of fire, some millions of years in the future, but because the acts we do now will impact our lives, now. And yes, for years in the future.

Thus: is it useful to harm our neighbors? Or colleagues? Our children?

Well, no. Because this is the world we live in, and if we make it worse, then we have to live in a world we have harmed – in a world that we have made worse.

Practice forgiveness, Rabbi Hillel says, not because it’s sweet of you to forgive, but because this is the world you live in.

Do you want a better world? Build one then.


zelda1 said...

I try really hard to act right, always have, but sometimes, it is so hard. Do no harm is easier to do when it involves children, old people, animals, and the earth. Adults, well, I feel we sometimes can dish, but I try to ignore, that is, when I can. Sometimes, though, I just have to do it, I just have to say the last, get even, make my point, get even, and sometimes, it does feel good, but most of the time, I feel like if I would ignore it, I would feel better.

delagar said...

I was talking to Mouse about this yesterday. I don't mean ignoring, exactly, because you can't ignore the wrong that's done. I mean forgiving, which is really hard, and mending the ill, which is even harder, and not allowing the wrong to be done again, which hardest of all -- often outside our reach, since it sometimes lies in another's agency. But do what you can with all your might with what you have, I say.

CB said...

Sometimes, I think it would be easier to be a frog....

ignoring, forgetting, they don't work....remembering does't work, not real well...not for forgiving...

So really where do you start?

Diane said...

Which Spenser novel?!

delagar said...

It was Ceremony, but it probably could have been any of his early ones. They've all got that same ethos.

Diane said...

I've read them all; I remember Ceremony. I've read a couple of the non-Spenser ones, too.

I met Parker many years ago and am sorry to say that he came across as kind of jerky. He gets it, though, doesn't he? Most of it, anyway. I unloaded my entire Parker collection to a used bookstore, but I did keep the one that Parker autographed, Taming A Sea-Horse.