The movie was about that kid who figured out how to change the world by simply reinvesting the good. Then he ended up dead at the end of the movie and I basically forgot all about paying it forward because I was so ripshit about watching the whole thing and then having him die.
The concept/theory/idea predates the movie, likely predates Jesus if you think about it. As a matter of fact, I think that when you really get down to it, there wouldn’t even be a name for the idea of investing in the good if we didn’t all become so invested in ourselves and the outcomes of each and every move we make. Doing a nice thing should be natural, unfortunately in a world where we’ve consensually implied that trees do fall in the woods and do not in fact make a sound, doing good becomes something totally different. It’s an opportunity. And that, I’d venture to say, makes it not really a good thing. Just sayin’.
I do a lot of bad things, as we all do, and those things get plenty of coverage. I’ve even experienced the effects of a reputation built on people defining me by only the things they’ve seen, or have been witnessed by others. You can see how this becomes problematic. I don’t want to walk around talking about all the insanely nice stuff I do for people because then it wouldn’t feel authentic, but I’m a people. And people, for whatever reason, do want people to like them.
But today, I had a realization. This is deep, so you may want to lean way forward to make sure you get it. There is no such thing as good and bad, truly. There is only context. And context is subjective. And subjectivity is the reason for feuds, wars, political parties, Romeo + Juliet, and the lynch pin of success or failure for everything from brands to presidents and people.
I read The Week. It’s a good thing. And the reason it’s a good thing is because it’s taught me to be informed, but remain relatively unattached. I experience the outrage, disbelief, anger, and moral discouragement of the masses the same as everyone else, but what I’ve learned about myself (with the help of The Week and some solid mental illness) is that my involvement and opinion are only as valid as the context in which I’m forming or applying them. Three major things come to mind: occupy _________, extramarital affairs, and politics (which is arguable the same as the whole occupy bit).
Raise your hand if you’ve been exposed to an “Occupy?” (I’m raising my lily white hand because it just so happens that Boston is being occupied right outside my office.) Fundamentally, I’m with them. It is morally outrageous what’s happening in this country. Our children should be educated, our people taken care of, our collective opinion considered and weighed in every decision. But then I start to think practically about the Utopian society that we claim to want and how every philosopher from here to kingdom come who ever penned a book about a Utopian pretty much came to the same conclusion: that would be fucking awesome; too bad people are comprised of intellect and emotion. (Because the laborers, no matter how valued they are within the whole are going to start to want something shiny. Want their kids to have something as shiny as everyone else, and next thing you know, Maslow’s hierarchy has us all by the balls.)
And just like the rest of us, I think, “well J.H Christ, America! Warren is practically waving billion dollar bills at the budget crisis and we’re having a friendly tribal counsel to figure out which reason to use to tell him no. WTF?” But then that goshdarn practicality kicks in and I start to realize that the top 1% isn’t just men like Buffett. It’s families who make $523,000 a year and live in some of the most expensive cities in the world. Maybe those people have four kids who deserve to have a college tuition and they’re parents have earned the right to pay that tuition BEFORE ensuring that a bunch of other kids get educated. If I were making $523,000 a year and it was just me and Mr. B, there’s a good chance I’d be one of those benevolent, rich liberals holding a sign to give me more taxes. But if I woke up on a Tuesday knocked up with twins, I bet I’d have a hard time finding that sign. I’d slowly pipe down and start focusing on how to invest privately in the public good… I think I’d probably frighten myself with the Elephant-like thoughts running through my head.
Now, this is not to say that I believe in turning a blind eye to criminal activity that’s affected the lives of millions, if not billions, of people. But I need to look, not at the issues, but at the context. The same way our judicial system defined manslaughter from murder two, and murder two from murder one. Those are crimes by definition, but the context is completely different. And while I’d never invest additional money into prison luxuries for a bunch of first degree murders, I’d approach the man slaughter folks a little differently.
That’s to say, we could call that entire percentage of the population “murders” and treat them all as such, but the diversity amongst the group makes it impossible for me to require they all endure the ultimate punishment because of a blanket label.
But what does it have to do with extramarital affairs? Or politics? Or pay it forward?
Well, I’d ask you. Have you ever forgiven someone for sexual indiscretion? Have you ever found yourself rooting for a man or woman in a movie– the man or woman doing the cheating? I remember the first time I watched the movie Waitress. It wasn’t until the end of the movie that I realized I WANTED Keri Russell’s character to cheat on her husband. He was terrible. He’d broken an emotional vow long before she broke a physical one. But emotional vows don’t count. There aren’t any emotional whores being kept out of public office or asked to resign.
I’ve seen affairs that have changed people’s lives for the better. I’ve seen affairs that finally drove people to speak up and become proactive about their lives. I don’t condone cheating, but I don’t judge it until I know the context– and sometimes that can take years to fully assess.
And while politicians are the root of politics, deep inside I know that the kind of personality capable of getting up on world stage and playing the game in a way that can win– democrat or republican– is going to be a textbook example of someone with deep narcissistic tendencies, over-confidence, and likely deep vulnerabilities. But you can’t have the yin without the yang. When I go into surgery, I really don’t mind my surgeon having a cocky attitude and mild God-complex. Better that than a man who is pretty sure and believes that whatever happens, happens.
The point of all this, believe it or not, is not political. Or religious. Or even moral. The point is that our expectations of others has created a society where good must be done on a stage and bad swept way under the rug, similarly, our opinions must be convictions and our doubts ignored. Unfortunately, none of that is human nature. Humans are fallible and sometimes make very poor choices, but those choices alone do not define who we are. Politicians are not perfect any more than business plans are reality. But you have to set a standard, something that everyone can aspire to. And when we begin tearing people, religions, politics, and companies apart to point out where they have failed, the only thing we’re doing is setting the collective farther back. If there was a man or woman who could save the free world, far be it from me to care if they’ve had a tryst in a bathroom stall. What matters is whether that tryst indicates a view of women or gays that will affect policy. Aside from that, fuck it.
Maybe if we all tried to pay it forward, reinvest in the good, we’d start to see that nothing about any of this is personal. It’s contextual. Because there will be trees falling in the woods for the rest of time, whether we hear them or not, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re engaged, but only if we’re thoughtful, and outraged, but only if it’s relevant.
5 thoughts on “remember pay it forward?”
you need a newspaper column. or one on Huff Po.
awesome post, Caroline!
Loved it…again. You’re so talented (and insightful)!
Oh dear, I have to be the contrarian here, which is always a bit uncomfortable although intellectually ticklish. But I have to take exception to a few points you’ve made here having to do with your arguments of subjectivity, which is a tad reductive here.
One is the altruistic impulse (and particularly as it relates to the “pay-it-forward” concept, which is a chain letter of benefice, which in the past 3,500 years haven’t really hit many mail boxes). One good deed deserves another is a nice idea that I strongly encourage but doesn’t go a long way, because its obligation, and obligations are only fulfilled: they don’t boost our ego. We’re not really wired to pay good deeds forward.
Altruism is narcissistic, utterly selfish, and that’s what make it work. We give: we feel very good about ourselves. Endorphins squirt. Part of the pleasure is choosing the recipient: what would make us feel prouder of ourselves? One of the reasons there are so many Silver Donor lists on community functions and plaques on building is that there’s a terrific narcissitic tweak is being honored as a donor (and charities play this to the hilt, knowing the self-centered nature of altruism. Oddly, the most narcissitic (and pleasurable) forms of giving is to give anonymously, because then you get to add self-essness to your subconscious resume. True, some good acts are expiation of damaging acts, and some probably may be pay-it-forward, but these are more emotionally neutral acts. I’m not being cynical here: that we almost all share some extremely high degree of narcissism that is fed by good acts is magnificent.
Of the Occupiers (we have one), they are a highly inept but visible group, such as the earliest civil rights and Vietnam protesters, that are unable to articulate the actually reason they have to gather: that historically, the economic inequity as bipolar as we have today generally leads to some seriously bad shit. I don’t believe there’s ever been a utopia in world history because we’re collectively fucked up, but there sure have been a lot of dystopias, because we’re collectively fucked up.
And while it could be argued that its a strain to have two kids at Groton when your income is $500k, it could get even more of a strain if social pressure pushes the top marginal tax brackets back to Eisenhower’s levels (which is probably the most benign bad shit should a populist sentiment take hold).
But the one sentiment you express that I think you have to retreat from is this: “There is no such thing as good and bad, truly. There is only context. And context is subjective.” That’s the slope of moral relativism—well, actually it is moral relativism—and that slope is greasy beyond belief. The grease is that, as the same narcisstic impulse that drives so much of our behavior, is that YOU, individually, become the moral arbitrator of good or bad, and because it is subjective,
it becomes impossible to impose norms on a society, because any and every view is the correct view of good or bad…and those concepts of good or bad are not even a factor to begin with. (We haven’t even come near the terms “good and evil,” which add tang to the discussion, but also a closer definition). If you wish a barometer, rather than a subjective view, here is one: if an action, if it became a norm, would make society untenable, it is bad. If an action, if it became a norm, would be of benefit to society, that is good. Society has to determine good or bad, because our will is to make it subjective enough to validate all of our personal actions.
This can shift. At one time in world history, adultery was extremely bad, as it damaged or destroyed the cohesiveness of the tribe, which was necessary for survival. Today, adultery can be neutral (“hogamus higimus/men are polygamist/higamus hogamus/women monogamous”) or bad, should it damage other people, such as children: there is gray. But there are other actions that have always be beyond the pale, that are always bad: I simply can’t find a subjective view of rape. Nor can I find a subjective view of the near eradication of polio or the completely eradication of smallpox as arguably bad.
I can say, however, that a comment this long is inherently bad, and I should get my own fucking blog. Agreed.