When I was a teenager, I ended up in a heated debate with an older friend of a friend. This man, who must’ve been more than twice my age at the time, looked a bit like Jim Carrey and had a great deal of earnestness about him. As we sat with our larger group at a local diner, we became embroiled in an argument about whether we could really expect people to make a greater effort in their daily lives. According to him, people who were slovenly, thoughtless, or just plain lazy in their daily dealings couldn’t be faulted because they were inevitably doing the best they can. I, as an angry teenage firebrand, adamantly insisted that we could hold people to task for their failings and shortcomings, because they always had the capacity to do better.
The debate was long, interminable, and never satisfyingly concluded. Somehow, life managed to go on in spite of the this, and we continued along on our respective journeys.
Lately, though, my mind has been returning to that debate. I think about how my life has changed since then, and with it, my attitudes. When I was a troublemaking teenager, swept up in a sea of hormones and uncontrolled emotions, and picking fights with the cosmos, I was paradoxically quite convinced of my absolute mastery of myself – this in spite of the fact that I didn’t know a damn thing about anything, least of all myself. But now that I’ve quieted most of my inner struggles and molded my life into more or less what I wanted it to be, things feel a bit grey and monotonous, like there is nothing left for me to push my will against. And now, I feel like I’m doing the best I can, too. Adulthood feels like something that we shuffle our way through, trying not to trip on the speed bumps, and just doing the best we can.
Without having obstacles – even of the self-made variety – to throw myself against, without having painful decisions to grapple with, I even find myself questioning the reality of my own free will. When I make a decision that turns out to be wrong in retrospect, my burden of excessive self-awareness helps me to understand the factors that went into making it, and why it was the decision I made at the time. When I do less than I could have because of laziness, poor preparation, and other factors, I accept that this was what my state of mind led me to at the time. Whatever happened, it could not have gone differently, because if it could have, it would have. I reflect upon this idea often as I journey through the flat, featureless plain of my post-free will adulthood, and I still have trouble deciding whether this is mere verbal trickery, or hits upon a more fundamental truth of life.
I suppose ersatz Jim Kerry offered his observation more in the spirit of compassion for all the people out there doing their best to get by, whereas I, quite typically, take it more in the spirit of horrifying powerlessness. But even my more bleak interpretation has its own upside: once we accept that people’s actions are the inevitable consequence of everything in their life that happened up to that point, it is easy to move away from focusing on the intent behind their deeds. And if we can attend solely to people’s actions – no matter how selfish or wrongheaded they may be – instead of dwelling on the idea that there is another decision-making mind, just like ours, behind them, maliciously willing to make us miserable, it takes away a lot of the sting when we’re on the receiving end of actions we don’t like. If we can handle that trick, then being punched in the face could be a lot like cutting ourselves while chopping vegetables: highly unpleasant, but without all that extra baggage and lost faith in humanity. (I assume so, anyway: I’m glad to say I’ve never actually been punched in the face, though I’ve certainly cut myself a lot of times while chopping vegetables.)
When someone does something bad to me, I may whine bitterly (as my friends know!), but more and I more, I find myself pitying them. I have to pity the person who lives with so much pain that they’d lash out to make themselves feel better (as I used to), or who never had the opportunity in life to learn how to treat other human beings. I have to pity anyone who has been surrounded by so much ugliness and contains so much ugliness inside them that they feel the need to force even more of it out into the world. But even then, I suppose they’re doing the best they can.