People are Natural Disasters Too

Thursday January 4, 2007

Natural Disasters

One interesting thing about distractions in meditation – or in life in general – is that there are certain classes of distractions that are, well, decidedly more distracting than others. And something you notice if you do even a little meditation is that the thing that catches the attention like nothing else is the sound of somebody doing something. The sound of the wind in the trees can be as loud as you like, and you may not be distracted by it; but the sound of that annoying person sitting behind you who cannot remain still and keeps on shuffling can be utterly maddening. Even more than the sound of somebody else shuffling or fidgeting, the sound of the human voice almost irresistably pulls our attention. We want to know who is speaking, what they are saying, why they are saying it…

This is not accidental, I think, but points to something deeper about what it is like to be a human being. We are exquisitely well biologically attuned to the many subtle signals of the social world of which we are a part, and for good evolutionary reason, for in this social world, our intererests – or the interests of our genes, the two not being exactly the same! – are very much at stake. We are evolved to be profoundly responsive to social signals. We give them more weight. They get under our skin a lot more.

This attunement to the human social world can have wider effects. One such effect is that what provokes our interests, it seems, are agents. When there is an idea of agency, then our interests seem to be much more strongly at stake than they otherwise would be. This obsession with agency is one that is deeply human, I think, and one that goes beyond just our relations with human or other animal others so that we attribute agency to things that decidely are not agents. In religion, for example, it has been suggested entirely plausibly by the likes of Pascal Boyer that one of the things that forms our ideas about gods may be the (unwarranted) ascription of agency to those things that are without it: a kind of cognitive overspill.

It is a fact that things that have no agency don’t worry us so much as things that do have agency, so that the shuffler on the cushions behind is much more of a problem than the wind in the trees or the drip of the rain. And it is when we fasten on the idea of agency that our ire becomes provoked, so that if we find ourselves becoming enraged with the computer, the washing-machine or what have you – we find ourselves, interestingly, attributing agency to the said item. Our computer is being intractable or has it in for us; our washing machine is out to get us. And once we have attributed agency to these things, then we get even more steamed up about them. We curse them, we throw insults, and so on. Or, if we do not find ourselves attributing agency to the object itself, we find ourselves blaming the agents who made it, who programmed the computer, who sold us the washing machine, and so on.

There are a lot of fascinating thoughts that could be followed here – including, incidentally, the thought that are concern with having “free will” might be less a guardian of morality, and more an excuse for this kind of heated blame, a point made in a slightly different form by Nietzsche, if I remember rightly – but I’ll leave those thoughts for another time. The proposal I want to make here is just this one: that perhaps it is possible to quench the heat of our strife with our fellow human beings by reflecting that people are natural disasters too. That is to say, by recognising that it is simply in human nature to do the kinds of things that human beings do, in the same way that it is in the nature of the rain to fall. Most of us, after all – at least in our wiser and more level-headed moments – don’t take the fact that the rain is falling personally; yet in our relations to other human beings we take every minute thing personally, whether it is indeed intended personally or not.

If people are natural disasters too, then perhaps it is possible to find at least a little space amid the heat of our outrage and strife, a space in which it is possible to return to a more equanimous perspective on the situation in hand, and to act with perhaps a little more wisdom and kindness.

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