Reflections on Aphorisms #45

Today was just a struggle for everything. Not sure why. Fortunately, tomorrow will probably be easier, and even if it’s not it wasn’t like today was insurmountable. Just had to work for it.

Aphorism 71

Ladies and gentlemen are permitted to have friends in the kennel, but not in the kitchen.

Shaw

Interpretation

I’m going to take this in a different way than I think Shaw wanted me to, but first I’m going to respond directly.

I think we’ve made great progress in the past century about moving beyond social distinctions. Of course, a lot of this is because we’ve done away with the concept of the upper class as being anything special (at least in the literary world, and eventually Gatsby will work his magic on everyone), but there’s also been a more conscious distinction of that.

Now, that’s not to say we’re perfect. A lot of people still go for fairly isolated bubbles. I’m not one of those people (though my social circles tend to be pretty outlier-friendly because they’re small), but the only thing that I think it is still socially acceptable to exclude people for is education, and that’s something that you can fake and get past pretty well.

Mind you, society is not necessarily so universal that the rule applies to everyone.

However, I think we’ve compensated for this by trending toward being antisocial. I actually think the digital age makes us better about this (I regularly correspond with people on three continents, and those are just the people whose locations I am certain of!), but the problem is that we’re shut off in our daily lives.

It’s a luxury and a leisure just to talk to people as we go about our days, but we rarely extend that courtesy to others. Rather, our interactions with everyone but those we consider our friends are mechanical. We’ve turned everyone into the nameless and faceless servants of the past age.

Now it’s time to rant.

One of the things that I get worked up over is the way that people treat their pets.

Now, I have nothing against pets as a concept, but they’re not people.

My cat passed away a month or two ago (my perception of time is flawed, not my recollection of the events; it was on Mother’s Day here in the US).

It forced me to confront something that I was not hoping to confront, namely loss, but it also was a reminder of something else. We invest a lot in creatures that are around us, and it’s right to do so.

However, we can’t let our love for animals become an escape from the love we ought to have for the people around us.

Resolution

Talk to strangers.

Associate value with each individual.

Don’t let anodyne numbness be mistaken for good health.

Aphorism 72

One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing.

Wilde

Interpretation

I’m sure Wilde means something other than how I’m going to take this, but the written word has no inflection and I’m not going and looking up the context, nobody can stop me.

Kindness is a funny thing. The etymology of the word nice is often cited as being derived from the Latin word nescius, which we would translate as “unknowing” in modern English (actually, that’s the nice neutral connotation; we might better use the word “ignorant”).

Being nice sucks for the people you’re nice to.

Nobody improves when you praise what they always do.

They might improve when you praise their new achievements.

They might improve when you let them know they’re wrong.

They won’t improve if you just say they did well.

This is something that I learned through experience as a teacher; the greatest thing you can do to disadvantage a student you dislike is to tell them that their work is good and you have no comment.

At least the notion that their work is bad may let them know that they have to get their act together. False praise, on the other hand, lets you lead them down the road to perdition.

Aside: It has often been the case that the students who I personally dislike actually do phenomenal work, and I have a personality that leads me to find fault in things and be over-critical, so the above fault is not one I fell into frequently.

An important corollary to this is that people who are abrasive and rough on you often have your best interests at heart. Part of learning discernment is to form a schema with which to judge your critics.

Some will be bitter people who destroy others because it advances them, while others will be trying to save you from your own failings by pointing them out.

The secret that I’ve found is to look for emotion in places it shouldn’t be. Obviously if you offend someone or betray them, they will criticize you emotionally. This is not necessarily the mark of a bitter person, and you must figure out whether their response is proportionate (remember that many disagreements stem from different values, so this is an exercise in empathy rather than rationalization).

If you differ in methodology and they view this as a personal offense, they are of the worse sort. They may still have something valuable to add. I actually wrote about taking criticism as a game designer just a few weeks ago, and a lot of people like this give thoughtful suggestions that may at first look like anger. They’re still bad critics in the sense that their emotion overpowers their better faculties, but a sufficiently talented or skilled person is fine either way.

Resolution

Don’t be willfully ignorant (or blindly ignorant, for that matter, but you can’t always help the latter).

Beware those whose offense is earned easily, but be willing to admit your fault.

The cruelest acts are often those which seem kind; never spare anyone the truth and cripple their ability to grow.

Aphorism 73

You will not become a saint through other people’s sins.

Chekov

Interpretation

There was an expression I once heard: “There are no winners in the race to the bottom.”

It was meant as a sort of jest about lazy adolescents comparing how much time they wasted, but it’s also true in a deeper sense (I believe this is why it stuck with me).

Justification and rationalization often fails to justify and provide reason for our actions.

The greatest flaw here is when one uses a comparison for exculpation. Not only does it serve as a conscious judgment of the other (after all, they must be deemed to be less than the judge), which runs the danger of hubris, cruelty and dehumanization, but also as a way to ignore personal flaws that ought instead to be excised.

Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

We like ourselves (at least if we are considered healthy), but we often like ourselves at the expense of being objective about ourselves.

To speak honestly, my vices probably outweigh my virtues. That isn’t to say that nothing I do is worth it, but I contribute less than I should to society and I rarely make the sacrifices that I should to make that better.

As something of a moral legalist by nature, I often find myself with the temptation to look at other people and say things like “Well, at least I don’t smoke/cuss/drink/wear crocs (though admittedly probably more as a result of impulses against wearing shoes that have holes than any fashion superiority).”

However, that overlooks the fact that for every vice I find in others which is not in myself, they may use the same lens that I examine them with to find vices in me.

The solution is not to look outward, but inward. Discover your vices. Then figure out how to fix them. Move toward being a better you, not better than someone else.

Resolution

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Judge only with the realization that you bear the same guilt.

Embrace the pursuit of morality.

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