A few days ago, I encountered one of those little pictures-with-text that people share on Facebook these days. This one made me feel really bad. I instinctively resented the message. It was one of those “feel good” messages that gives one simple explanation to all he problems in the world. In three little lines it explains how everybody ought to feel, and that all the problems of the world are caused by people who are not feeling that way.
In other words, the message consists of a bullshit premise and its bullshit conclusion. Which is smug, condescending and judgmental. It divides people into “us and them”: “Us good people who feel the right way, versus those bad people who doesn’t feel the way we have decided that they ought to”. If the message operated on an intellectual level, it would never get away with it. Decent people wouldn’t be sharing it on Facebook. However, this message runs on pure emotion. It speaks directly to our need to feel good, and to our need to be one of the good guys who are against the bad guys. If you criticize such a message, does it mean that you are one of the bad guys yourself? Or does it merely mean that you are a boring spoilsport who won’t let people feel good? These two options are a false dichotomy, of course. But false dichotomies are invited by the message, along with other bad ways of thinking.
Sadly, I think this is the very reason why a lot of people share these messages, or click like when other people share them: If you don’t “share” or “like”, maybe people think that you are a bad guy? At the very least, you have missed a chance to “prove” that you are one of the good guys, and it would only have taken you a second of zero effort work to get these free credits for nothing.
Images are shared on Facebook and similar for very different reasons. Sometimes because they are funny, interesting or meaningful from the sharers genuine point of view. And sometimes because they manage to communicate to people “don’t think it through, just share me now!” How good or bad a message sounds becomes much more important than how good or bad it actually is.
This particular message that I wasn’t so fond of consisted of three lines.
1. People were created to be loved.
2. Things were created to be used.
3. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.
The first line I can agree with. Never mind that humans are born, not created, and that mankind was evolved, not created. The line can be seen as a metaphor. That everybody deserve to be loved, or that it is God’s will that everyone is loved. Fair enough.
The second line is slightly wrong in itself. Things are created by humans. They are created for whatever purpose the human create the thing for. Some things are created to be useful. Some things are created to be beautiful. Some things, teddy bears for example, are created for humans to develop emotional attachment to them.
Together with the first line, the second line make it look as if there was an opposition between loving people and loving things. As if people love either one or the other. As if life was a simple choice where loving people (and using things) is the right choice, while loving things (and using people) is the wrong choice. The third line builds entirely on this this incorrect assumption. Stating that the problem with the world is that people choose the wrong option of these two options available.
Well, no. That’s not entirely correct. It doesn’t actually claim that people have any choice. Do we ever really choose what our heart beats for? So, it might not be about two choices. Instead, it could be about two kinds of people. The inherently good people who are are loving, and the inherently evil people who are greedy. Does this mean that we have a simple solution available? If all the good people kill all the evil people (and take their things), then the world wouldn’t be in chaos anymore! Of course the three lines doesn’t say that. They doesn’t give any answers at all. They only tell us that there is a certain kind of people who have bad hearts, and that everything is THEIR fault. Who are these people? Surely not you and me? No, they must be The Others, those who are not like us. Maybe they are psychopaths.
“Psychopathy” and “sociopathy” are actually not real psychiatric diagnosises. The are not used by the DSM or the ICD. A real diagnosis, such as Antispcial Personality Disorder, is far more limited than these sprawling concepts.
I know one person who is greedy and nothing else. A person who care only about himself, never about anyone else. Getting as much money as possible for himself is the only thing that matters to him. He manipulates and lies to get whatever he wants, and he doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. He is, in fact, never ever good to anyone. Who is this horrible person? Well, he is the uncle of Donald Duck. He is a comic book villain, not a real person. That is why his personality is so one-dimensional. In real life, most people never act like him. Those who do, only do it sometimes to some people. A person who always behaves and thinks like the old comic book version of Scrooge McDuck, a person who doesn’t have any other sides to his personality, does such a person even exist in real life? Probably not.
In real life, most people who care about things do it because they care about certain people. Including themselves, but usually not limited to themselves. They care about money, because money can buy food and shelter and healthcare and airplane tickets for themselves and their loved ones. Those who care about shallow status symbols do it because they believe it will make them more popular. More loved.
Everybody loves material possessions. The ones who claim that they don’t are almost always people who already have all they need, and feel safe about keeping them. Not caring so much about material things comes quite easy when you do it from the comfort of a good home, you got money in the bank and you live in a society that will give good healthcare if you or anyone in your family gets sick. And everyone, or at least almost everyone, loves people as well. It is not either-or.
Greed and manipulation exists. They are real problems. But are they really caused by the love of things? And more importantly, are they really the one single problem? As in “there are no other problems, this is the only one”? The root of all evil? Nah. I don’t believe that for a second.
Buddhism offers a more reasonable perspective. One where clinging, ignorance and hate feeds each other, and feed all other problems. Greed and obsession with material things is only a part of clinging. Loving people is part of the problem as well. When you become overprotective or controlling, when you let yourself be overcome with fear that something bad will happen to your loved ones… then you will very likely hurt them, hurt others, and hurt yourself. Clinging is only one of the three sources of bad things. Personally, I believe that ignorance and hate are much bigger problems than clinging. And yes, they do feed each other.
A child who loves his teddy bear is not a problem. An adult who obsess over material things does not have to be a problem either, not if she lives a decent honest life. Lets say that she doesn’t love anyone and isn’t loved by anyone. Sounds kinda lonely, sounds kinda sad. Maybe she would be happier if she could open up a little. But that is not someone else’s choice to make for her, and it sure as hell isn’t any reason to condemn her. As for using people, that’s an entirely separate issue.
What does it mean to use someone? And how wide or narrow definition are we using in the first place? A reasonable wide definition is to use the other person to achieve some goal or agenda of your own, rather than a goal or agenda that you both share. A reasonable narrow definition is to use someone like that against his will, without his consent, and/or in a way that harm him.
People use each other all the time. As long as it is mutual and only in the wide definition of “use”, it is not problematic at all. Using someone with them getting much less (or nothing) in return becomes exploitation if it goes to far, but a little bit of honest using should be okay. A simple example, when a stranger is lost and asks for directions, you should help them without asking for anything in return. Let them use you: A few seconds of your time is a very small loss for you, but getting the directions is a very big gain for them.
Generally speaking, I think this is the main thing when one person is using another or someone volunteers to be used: How much does the user gain, and how much does the user lose? Mutual gain is almost always the best, but one-way. Can be good too. It is better the more the winner gains and the less the used loses, while worse the more the winner gains and the less the used loses. Mildly inconveniencing someone else to save your own life is not so bad. Destroying someone else’s life for your own minor convenience is truly awful. Simple mathematics.
On a more general level, we should always strive towards helping people in ways that has as big difference as possible between what it cost for us and what it gives to the person we are helping. It is not a zero sum game. Spending a certain amount of mental energy does not give that same amount to the other person. On the contrary, it can give much more, or much less. Grandiose gestures are usually futile and doesn’t really help anyone.
Claiming to be the good guy who loves people instead of things does not in itself contribute to making the world a better place.