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Mel Graykin: The irrational animal



For the Monitor
Thursday, July 20, 2017

It astonishes me the way we humans behave sometimes. We make foolish, self-defeating choices. We follow impulses that we know we shouldn’t. We refuse to believe what we are told, no matter how persuasive the evidence or knowledgeable the source. We focus on details that are misguiding or irrelevant, and ignore important and obvious truths.

And we all do it. All of us. Regardless of political or religious persuasion. Regardless, even, of education or intelligence. As much pride as we take in our reasoning ability, we are not the rational beings we fancy ourselves to be.

This is likely what gave rise to the notion that we are all miserable sinners. We aspire to a certain ideal, the kind of person we think we ought to be, but invariably fall short. We are led astray by our own psychology. So much of our thought processes are unconscious. Our perceptions of the world are molded by our past experiences, warped by our past traumas. Our cravings come from places deep inside and can be so powerful that they feel like a voice in our heads persuading us to give in. The Devil leading us into temptation.

Once, when we didn’t have such easy access to an abundance of food, we craved fats and sweets, and gorged ourselves whenever we got the chance. This wasn’t a bad thing and likely helped us to survive, as we packed on the pounds to get us through the lean times.

Why do we think that we can now just turn this off by sheer force of will? And why are we so sure it is a character flaw when we can’t?

Sex is one of the most primal drives within us. How overwhelmingly powerful it is can vary from person to person. How it manifests itself varies even more. Our sexuality (especially in our culture) baffles and frightens us. We are fascinated by it, and yet terrified of its power over us. Sex makes us anxious, euphoric, manic, angry, crazy. Yet we cannot easily speak of it openly. We use euphemism and metaphor. We blush and stammer when we have to talk about it with our children – or even our physicians. Often we can’t even express ourselves frankly about it to our sexual partners.

We try to control it, regulate it, suppress it. We impose strict rules on ourselves and feel guilty when we cannot follow them. We impose strict rules on others and heap condemnation upon them when they cannot follow them. But the urges come from a place deep within us that our rational selves are hard-pressed to control. We see the object of our desires and become convinced that we must have it at all costs. The ancient imperative to obey our sexual urges convinces us that this is more important that anything else.

So the evangelist who preaches thunderously against homosexuality eventually gets caught in the hotel with the male prostitute. The politician who advocates family values gets caught in an adulterous affair. The public figure, knowing that doing so could ruin his career if he is caught, nonetheless does things he shouldn’t, whether it be driving while intoxicated or soliciting sex from unwilling or underage females.

What psychologists are discovering about the factors that affect our behaviors and perceptions reveals just how complicated the whole business is. Believing in conspiracies, denying the holocaust or climate change, voting against one’s best interest, racial bigotry and xenophobia, criminal misbehaviors, even what we buy and whom we admire, all are the result of our imperfect impulses and gut feelings. Our higher brain functions have only a limited ability to override the chaos and impose rational order.

But we do have that ability. When we understand what is going on and realize our limitations, we have a much better chance of either overcoming them, or working with them in a more skillful way. Understanding how our minds work helps to free us from guilt and from wrongfully imposing guilt on others. Because we do need to control ourselves. We must strive to put a leash on our cravings and gut feelings when they lead us into destructive behaviors. An individual may not be able to avoid feeling sexual urges toward minors (and they are not to be condemned for having them), but for the sake of the minor they must not act on them. As understandably comforting as it may be to think that climate change is a hoax, that there is no danger nor any obligation to do anything about it, indulging in this belief only serves to seal our fate.

We as a society must try our best to make intelligent choices. We need the help of science to keep us from fooling ourselves, because we know we are subject to irrational beliefs and behaviors. Mistakes will still be made, missteps taken. Very little that we humans do is flawless because, well, we are only human. But just because utopia isn’t possible, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to discover better ways of doing things.

Indeed, our survival may depend on it.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives and writes in Deerfield and practices freelance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)