It is one of those interesting philosophy problems that young people tend to get all wrapped up in when they first discover it: What does it mean to be me? How can I understand my character when I am an actor on the stage, not a member of the audience? Do I actually exist, or is this all just a very vivid dream? How could I possibly know the difference?
Those kinds of questions all boil down to a fundamental problem with human consciousness. In order to understand a system, you need to be just a little bit smarter than that system. So you cannot ever quite understand yourself, because you will never be quite smart enough.
This is where it comes in handy to have very smart friends. They can help you see things that are so fundamental to your architecture that you take them for granted. One such friend helped me to realize that I live by a code. It’s a very complicated code, so I cannot just coin a pithy fundamental rule and derive everything else from that. But I can enumerate a set of rules.
Just to be clear, I don’t think about the rule and decide what to do. I always know what to do. I’m simply reverse-engineering the rules that would give rise to my behavior. (And, to be even clearer, I could not possibly have done this one my own because of the “you’re not smart enough” problem, so I relied on my very smart friend to help me.)
Because it’s easier to write them this way, these rules I’m going to enumerate are expressed as things you should or should not do. However, I want to be perfectly clear that this is my code. I do not expect anyone else to live by it. And I will not judge you for living by a code that is completely different, and completely at odds with my code. That should become clear when I let you in on my first rule.
Do not judge. This principle came with age. Like all young people, I used to judge quite a lot. I thought there were good people and bad people. Good behavior and bad behavior. But as I gained wisdom, I realized that good people do bad things. They do them because they are doing their best in a complicated situation that I do not fully understand. Or they do them because of a compulsion beyond their control, like addiction or mental illness. And maybe bad people do good things, by accident. Who knows? I certainly don’t. And so it would be presumptuous and wrong for me to judge. My friends can tell me things they’ve done that they think are awful and horrid, and I simply go, “Hmm. Well that happened.” Shrug.
Except: There are some things that are so fundamentally wrong that I will judge them. Hitting a child. Hitting your wife or lover. Murder. Plagiarism. Rape. Cruelty to animals. I have no tolerance for that kind of behavior, or for people who engage in it. If you do that kind of shit, I will judge you. I will judge you so hard.
Do not pity. Nobody wants you to feel sorry for them. Nobody. So if you feel sorry for someone, you are actually being cruel. And being cruel is unforgivable. Nobody wants your pity, so you should never pity.
Except: You should be compassionate and helpful. Sometimes terrible things happen to people, and your instinct to help those people is always right.
Do not be concerned with “normal.” This rule had to be pointed out to me, because it never even occurred to me that people might choose to do things because “it’s what people do.” For example, I put on my pajamas at the end of the day, the very moment I am sure I don’t have to go out or see someone that would be uncomfortable seeing me in my pajamas. I really couldn’t care less what other people might think about my choice of clothes, or car, or lunch, or anything. And I’d never let the judgement of others dictate my behavior.
Except: When being “normal” is important to the people you love. The most recurring example of this is participating in rituals like a prayer before the Thanksgiving meal. It is important to my wife that I act “normal” for her family, so I do.
Don’t do things you don’t want to do. If I don’t want to do something, chances are really good that I’m simply not going to do it. Why would I? For example, I hate grocery shopping. I loathe it. So when I was between wives, and there was nobody else to do the shopping, I hired a teenager to do my shopping for me. If there is any way I can avoid doing something I don’t want to do, then I’m going to find that way.
Except: When doing something you don’t want to do will make someone you love happy. In particular, if I see an opportunity to do something that will make my wife’s life easier, I’ll jump on that. Because acts of service are the key thing that she looks for as a sign that I love her, and I want very, very much for her to know that I love her. That is pretty much the only reason I do the dishes, for example. I hate doing the dishes. But if I didn’t do them, then she would need to. So I do the dishes.
Do not trust authority; rather, despise authority. The government, the police, the schools, every organization that has ever had the ability to tell me what to do is an organization that I — at a deep, fundamental level — hate with all my being. I flash my headlights at oncoming traffic to let them know about speed traps. When I was in school, I was constantly finding loopholes to get me out of doing whatever it was they thought I should be doing. I don’t care for a second whether my kids do well in school, because I know they are smart, eager, wonderful kids. How they do on a standardized test, or how they are judged by a teacher I don’t particularly think is all that smart, is just not at all important to me. Our government has proven time and time and time again that they are scoundrels. Scoundrels do not deserve my respect or admiration.
Except: I participate in local government, and I help the schools. I loathe these organizations, but at the same time, I know they serve a valuable purpose. So I contribute my time. My money. My knowledge.
Do not break oaths, or be disloyal, or cheat on your lover. There are some things that are simply right, and some things that are simply wrong. My first marriage ended when my first wife ended it. As miserable as we were, it was beyond comprehension for me to end my marriage. I had made an oath. My word is my bond. Fast forward to my current marriage: I will defend my wife’s choices and actions without question. I am loyal to her, and whatever she does is right. Period. And physical infidelity is, frankly, incomprehensible to me.
Except: It seems there is always an except, but I don’t have one here. So instead, I’ll simply fall back to my first rule about judging. People break oaths, they are disloyal, they cheat. And I don’t judge them for that. Because they obviously have reasons that I simply do not understand.
Assume the best about people. My feeling about individual people is pretty much the exact opposite of my feeling about institutions. If I see the church doing something good, I’ll think, “what’s their angle?” If I see a person doing something bad, I’ll think, “I must not understand the situation,” or “they must be confused, and once they reach clarity, they’ll undo that mistake.” I believe that people are all fundamentally good.
Except: Don’t be a sucker. In particular, sometimes people are working on behalf of institutions. A salesperson doesn’t want to lie to you, but often it is their job to lie to you because of the big greedy corporation they work for. So keep that in mind. Full disclosure: I’m an easy mark. I am so fundamentally convinced that people are good, that even with overwhelming evidence that they are not, I’ll still love them and give them the benefit of the doubt.