Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Harmony Myth Of Human Nature

I took this a couple of years ago at a bookstore near my home.
Sometimes it happens when you're watching Oprah at the gym or reading some advice columnist while surfing the net.  Sometimes it happens when you're just trying to mind your own business but someone starts talking to you and you can't run away.

It starts when a person is talking about how it's "OK" that their dog died or that yours did or that their sister got sick or that they lost their job.  And they'll say that it's OK because, really, at the end of the day "everything happens for a reason."

And you'll be like, "Wait. What?"

I was going to say that this is a version of the "just-world fallacy," which is "a cognitive bias in which people believe that the world they live in is one in which actions have appropriate and predictable consequences" (thank you, Wikipedia).

But if you think about it, it's not so much a "just world" fallacy as a "utopian world" fallacy.  Because when people say that everything happens for a reason, they usually don't mean that bad stuff happened because a person deserved something bad to happen.  They mean the much more radical idea that what seems like "bad" stuff is actually good, and will reveal itself to be so in some unspecified "long run."

It's easy to make fun of the utopian world fallacy.  But I think it has a close cousin belief that is harder to ferret out -- and even more widespread.  This is what I call the "harmony myth" of human nature. This is the idea that that there is some naturally coherent way to put your life together so that all the pieces will fall into place.

If you can just get things properly organized and get yourself free of weird addictions and neurotic attitudes, so the thinking goes, there'll be no more cravings for doughnuts and quarter-pounders and no more lolling around the internet, looking for the latest Snooki news.  Instead, you'll be dying for organic carrot juice and spending all your free time taking free online physics courses or informing yourself about the history of the Balkans.

I might notice the harmony myth more than other people, because it is contrary to one of my most deeply held convictions about the good life:  that it is, at bottom, a series of trade-offs.

The reason to eat more carrots and fewer doughnuts isn't that carrots are inherently good and doughnuts inherently bad; it's just that there are other things you want, like health, that happen to be hampered by too many doughnuts.  If you're just waiting for things in your life to get organized so that the doughnut desires go away, trust me:  you'll be dead before that happens.

I was so pleased recently to hear Peter Sagal say on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell! me a couple of weeks ago that the one lesson kids would learn from having apples as a compulsory half of the french fry portion of a Happy Meal was how much better french fries are than apples.  Because that is true.  But it doesn't matter.  It's only if you're in the grip of the harmony myth that you'd think that nutritiousness and tastiness have to be tightly correlated.

Two manifestations of the harmony myth particularly drive me nuts.  One is in education.  I often hear parents telling me how important it is that learning in school be "fun" and what a failure it is when it's not.  And I tell them:  sure, it should sometimes be fun.  But it isn't always going to be fun.  And isn't that an important part of what kids are learning in school?  That you can do things you don't particularly feel like doing, in order to reap some longer term reward?  Isn't that lesson the foundation of achieving stuff?

The other is in the whole "cook fresh meals at home" movement.  I have no quibble with the idea that it is good to cook fresh meals at home.  It is.  But why on earth this massive pretense that cooking at home is actually more fun and pleasant than going out or getting take-out?  I'm sure there are exceptions, but for many people, cooking is boring, repetitive, and kind of stressful.  And when you're done, there are pots and pans and dishes to clean.

Why not call a spade a spade, and say, Fun, Maybe Not, but Worth Doing, Obviously.

Once you get rid of the utopian myth you realize that coherence in life isn't about magical harmony, but rather about making sensible tradeoffs and compromises.  Cake for breakfast on Christmas:  fine. Cake for breakfast everyday:  insanity.

It's tempting to do a little armchair psychology about why people fall into the harmony myth trap. But I'll limit myself to just one comment.  As the end product of millions of years of evolution that proceeded by survival of random mutations, how could we fail to be anything but a patchwork of varying drives, tastes, needs, and appetites? 

It just wouldn't make any sense that we'd be anything else.

1 comment:

eclectichead said...

Absolutely perfect, Thank you so much