Monday, June 8, 2009

Assume Your Vices!

Maybe you remember the classic scene from the movie "As Good As It Gets," where Carol (Helen Hunt) has completely lost patience with the shenanigans of Melvin (!) (Jack Nicholson) who is both genuinely obsessive-compulsive and also just sort of a pain in the ass kind of guy. It's a-do-or-die moment, and she's maybe going to leave forever, unless he can say something nice. Say something really nice, she demands. There's a long pause and then he says, "You make me want to be a better man."

It's a total success as a reply (indeed, when says says it's the best compliment she's ever gotten, he says maybe he overshot a little). And we know basically what he means. There are things you want, and there are things you think are worth wanting, and they're not always the same. Melvin wants to wash his hands with a new bar of soap every five minutes but he doesn't regard this as a worthy desire to have. He doesn't want to be the kind of person who wants to wash his hands every five minutes; he just can't help it.

This is a common feeling. In lots of ordinary cases it seems like what we want to want and what we find worth wanting aren't the same. Maybe you want to eat a whole bag or Doritos while you watch "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!" but you wish you wanted to snack on mineral water while watching PBS. Maybe you want to be snippy with your sister in retaliation for some hurtful thing she said, but you wish you wanted to have a warm friendly chat about it. Maybe you want to have sex with your neighbor's spouse, but you wish you wanted only to have sex with your own.

It's a common feeling, but I'm here to tell you it's maybe a little too common. That is, we say it, but we don't really mean it. It's often just an excuse. Because we are, generally, way more attached to our bad qualities than we are willing to let on.

Imagine some future time and some other place, in which mood-drugs are highly specialized. Imagine you're told: "You have a problem with junk food and bad TV? Here, take these "Eau de Sante" and "Masterpiece Theater" pills; you'll only want to watch Brideshead Revisited and drink Perrier from now on. You have a problem with your temper? Here, take the "Can't We All Get Along" pill; you'll be transformed immediately into a mild, even-tempered type person who never loses her cool. You have a problem with desiring people who are not your spouse? Here, take the "Hi-Fidelity" pill; you'll only feel sexual desire for your spouse.

Would you take these pills? I'm guessing not only would most people not want to take these pills; but they wouldn't even want their loved ones taking them. Living with someone transformed this way would be like living with a zombie.

Of course, this isn't Melvin's situation at all; he really would take a pill to stop wanting to wash his hands. That's not a pretend-vice; it's something he really wishes he didn't have. There are such things, for sure. I'm just saying a lot of what masquerades as real helplessness in the face of a bad impulse actually reflects qualities we're not so unhappy with after all. If you wouldn't take the pill to get rid of the desire, how can you say you want not to have it? You can't.

The moral of this story is that we might not be so alienated from our vices as we like to think. That's OK; but if you're not alienated from your vices, why think of them as vices at all? Why not, as the French say, assumer your vice, acknowledge it, stand behind it, take it on as part of you? After all, as long as you're not mean, or violent, dishonest, or incredibly intemperate, desiring junk food, bad TV, snippiness, and sex isn't so bad.

It's desires like these that make us the humans we are. Might as well give them a little respect now and then.


Daniel said...

I wonder how specialized and individualized the future mood drugs might me. I remember once in college drinking along with Sebastian while watching Brideshead - no Perrier in sight!

Patricia said...

Can you imagine if they were really specialized? Like, "I have a problem with buying overpriced jeans" or "I tend to surf the internet when I'm supposed to be working." How funny would it be to have a little pill for each of individual life problems?