Saturday, September 25, 2010

a poem

sometimes, you need to go on a run
on a nice autumn saturday.
you forget to start your stop-watch,
then realize that losing track of time is just what you want.
the warm breeze blows comfortingly on your skin,
and your muscles are eager at the chance to work.
you think about life and all its complexities,
while you play the "catch a falling leaf in mid-air" game.
you may not know where you're running,
but that's ok because the leaves are turning colors
and it's beautiful all around you.
then you come to a stop because you are done
and life is good again.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Power of Choice

People do stupid things sometimes. Okay, let me back up. Maybe I shouldn’t make this generalization about the entire populace. How about this: I do stupid things sometimes. That sounds a little better. Allow me to explain. I do things that are not for my ultimate good. I break guidelines imposed on myself, which guidelines seem so logical and beneficial to me. I also break standards that society has established as desirable to abide by.

But am I really alone here? Maybe I can generalize about this particular concept after all. Yes, people do stupid things. In the age of information and zero-privacy, it is very apparent that people do stupid things; you see stupidity all the time. Think about the most recent celebrity who has been caught for carrying on an illicit secret relationship that they “know” they shouldn’t be carrying on. Obviously these people know the ramifications of their actions. Of course they do.

Less serious acts also illustrate the concept. Take, for instance, someone who needs to be very conscious of his diet and has imposed guidelines on what he can’t eat. This particular person then passes a donut shop, knowing full-well that this type of food is off-limits! But the thoughts start spinning. And before he knows it, our friend caves in, and the donut is history.

This concept happens so often, where we as humans fall victim to our apparent stupidity. Most of the time, the “stupid” activity is only stupid after something goes wrong. At the beginning, it is only risky or dangerous. There are the financially dangerous activities, such as gambling. There are the physically dangerous activities, like harmful drugs or risky sports. There is the emotionally dangerous, like when someone has unharnessed anger. All of these dangers are playing with fire! We don’t think that we will get burned, but we continue to participate in the activities nonetheless. One could easily make the conclusion that we are very irrational creatures. After the fact--always after the fact--I think to myself, “Why?? Why couldn’t I stick to my norms, my guidelines, my rules? Why couldn’t I play it safe?” Such a response is very good in that it gives you sufficient emotion to change your behavior. But such feelings can also have a negative effect, if taken to the extreme. Here is one perspective that is useful in making sure that such negative feelings are not kept inside for too long. Maybe there is another reason why we behave stupidly sometimes. Rather than trying to justify breaking rules and laws that people should follow, I am interested in positing why it happens. For me, it is a very primitive craving to demonstrate that we are human and that we can make decisions for ourselves.

In the timeless book, Crime and Punishment, the character Raskolnikov plots to murder and rob a woman so that he can put her wealth to better use than she would be able to. Assessing the potential consequences of this act, it is unlikely that any rational person would carry this out. The most interesting part of the story is that after the dreadful deed, Raskolnikov doesn’t end up doing anything with the widow’s money but bury it. For days, he lays in bed sick and thinking about why he did what he did. Eventually, he comes to the conclusion that the reason that he murdered was to prove his ability to do it. He had proved that he was alive: "Life is real! Haven't I lived just now? My life has not yet died with that old woman! The Kingdom of Heaven to her-and now enough, madam, leave me in peace! Now for the reign of reason and light...and of will, and of strength...and now we will see! We will try our strength." Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov, Part 2, Chapter 7.

A lot of times we are exactly like Raskolnikov. We all have temptations that we want to entertain despite understanding the consequences of such actions. We may “know” how we should behave, but we just don’t act accordingly because a more powerful motive is working against us: the power of choice, the ability of us to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that we are not a robot that only does X, Y, and Z. That is the reason why we are all on this earth, to choose to do things. This is a very powerful force indeed.

A solution to this age-old tension? I would love to hear your thoughts.