So, there’s No Such Thing as
Free Lunch After All ...
On quite a few occasions, I’ve found myself furiously dialing a friend’s telephone number repeatedly, perhaps every ten minutes or so, even after realizing that they were not home when I “needed” to talk to them (i.e. to discuss whatever insignificant ethical or social quandary that I happened to be facing at the time). The irony here is that I would simply continue to try to reach them even though I was aware that it would be infinitely wiser to wait a few hours and attempt later, after having diverted myself with something more productive. But I insisted that I keep dialing in order to catch them the instant they got home. These moments in which I demonstrate my compulsive nature are both disconcerting and puzzling, particularly in that I know that other people have had similar experiences. In my bouts of self-analysis, I’ve tried to pin down the strange facet of human nature that enables the mind to yield to a single-minded drive. Is it stubbornness, insecurity, obsession? But I guess these labels only name the problem with trendy pop psychology terminology. And now I’m ready to go off on one of my famous tangents.
Compulsions are rooted in our cumbersome but inescapable sense of entitlement. “Entitlement,” according to my dictionary, is the furnishing of a right, title, or name to something—the creation of a relationship of ownership and belonging.
We’re brought into the world believing that it owes us something. Before we even get the chance to explore our circumstances—to see in what ways we’ve been fortunate or unfortunate, to try and succeed or fail—we are spoiled and utterly complacent. We ask for things, our fat little fingers grubbing unabashedly for candy, toys, etc., and circumstances permitting, we get them. Then comes the process of building self-control, layer upon layer of emotional restraint, good manners, personal hygiene, knowing when to kick and scream, and when to bite your tongue. Maturing entails discovering that you can’t receive whatever you want whenever you want it; sometimes you have to sacrifice something for it, sometimes you have to step all over someone else for it, and sometimes you have to accept that you aren’t meant to have it at all. But good behavior does not replace feelings of entitlement—only carefully regiments them.
As adults, spurred on by the desire to be worthy of something, everyone wants to hold on to a certain place in the world, to have a job in society that can only be filled by one (husband, wife, parent, head of state). It’s one of our goals in life to be satisfied in knowing that some entity—a job, idea or loved one—exists solely because we do. Kids join subcultures and “scenes” because we enjoy not only the sense of belonging, but also the sense of ownership (albeit communal ownership). And perhaps that’s why youth culture is so replete with selfishness and “shit-talking” and calculating opportunism: adolescents, in all their hormonal frustration and naiveté, are desperately searching for something that is theirs and theirs alone. In our attempts to forge an identity, we feel around in the nebulous darkness among peers for both individuality and group solidarity. And when the two concepts conflict, we’re confronted with the dilemma of belonging to a group vs. having a group belong to us. It seems almost ridiculously childish, like a baby’s exclusivity towards its mother’s affection: domineering and subservient all at once. So do we have to accept as part of our nature the great paradox that we desire both to control and to be controlled? The desire to control forms the basis for what we consider to be civilization, but how much control can we exact upon another human being before we lose control of ourselves, only to fall into the hands of a sentimental higher power? Are nationalism and fascism an extreme result of that insatiable sense of entitlement? What about xenophobia, which emerges as the jaded lower rungs of the social ladder are led to believe that an alien culture is somehow impinging upon the lives we’ve built for ourselves? What about love between two people—belonging to and, in a way, possessing each other?
But let me steer this digression back to what appears to be the topic. We behave impulsively when we feel that our entitlement is being violated. Wars begin when one nation attacks another. We get angry or depressed when we reach out to others and they’re not there for us. And even in everyday matters, we become frustrated when we don’t receive the response that we feel we deserve.
So every time people tick me off, that little alarm goes off in my head telling me that no one has any right to dismiss/inconvenience/annoy me. I’m honest, I take responsibility for my actions—in fact, I’m responsible to the point of neuroticism. So where do these self-absorbed people get off betraying my trust? After all, who the hell do they think they are?@#!? But lately, it’s occurred to me that I already know who they think they are. They think they’re me. My feelings are not the exception but rather the rule: other people think the world owes them something, too. So they go about their daily routines, guarding their possessions rabidly, grabbing opportunities, relentlessly pushing through life in search of what they think they want, whether they want to love or be loved, to hate or be hated, to serve others or themselves. And if it is not in one’s best interest to return a phone call or reciprocate good intentions, then they’ll most likely shirk the “responsibility” imposed upon them by standards of common courtesy. Of course, “best interest” refers to personal satisfaction, not just material gain or selfishness. I know plenty of people who genuinely obtain gratification through being nice to others for the sake of being nice. Then again, there are plenty of people who don’t, and as of late, I’ve come to realize that in many cases, it isn’t in my best interest to try to change them so that they help me fulfill my latent hope of making a little self-important niche for myself in the grand scheme of things. Obviously, not everyone can get out of life what they want all of the time, or even some of the time. Even the dilemma of belonging vs. controlling plays itself out in ironic ways: sometimes we hate being controlled by authority and try in futility to break free, and other times when we want someone to lead us, we find ourselves in charge.
What’s not so obvious is that there is no divine force watching over people, discriminating between good and bad, monitoring the course of fate so that the abstract concepts of “entitlement” and “consequences” can finally be realized for us. Sure, we feel remorse, empathy, compassion, malice, and those are amazing things. I’m still fascinated whenever I witness another human being acting deliberately and purely upon feelings, whether in a fight, in mourning, or in love. And I get sick when I see passive people drained of passion with no sense of responsibility or belonging. If 18 years on this planet have taught me anything, it’s that emotions, in one form or another, and little else, govern us. However, nothing governs emotions, besides perhaps a bunch of chemicals darting around in our cortexes. That’s what always comes back to bite us in the ass. There’s no such thing as complete control over another person because emotions persist, impervious to outside coercion, sovereign and essentially unpredictable. Even in the most nightmarish conditions (warfare or torture) virtually nothing can really extinguish passion, with the exception of physical death. Still, despite the vast influence of emotional dynamics on our lives, they remain virtually impossible to gauge, as do the “rules” that they generate over time. Morality, decency, entitlement and “karma” . . . are nothing but those ideals we have reified our wild impulses into. Conscience is our admiration of the fact that some things feel good and other things feel bad. It doesn’t extend beyond that into some mystical realm of higher judgement. It’s only a manifestation of our underlying efforts to harness human nature. We can’t, we never will, and yet we keep trying in order to console and reassure ourselves.
But I don’t want to turn this into another pessimistic rant about how human beings are by nature evil and selfish. This won’t be any sort of libertarian, darwinistic paean to primordial opportunism, nor will I advocate the abuse of trust in order to get ahead. That there is no universal standard against which we can all be measured in terms of “goodness,” does not automatically render useless our belief in the goodness of others. There’s an awesome dignity in the commonality of our emotions and a beauty in their sincerity. The universal, ironically aimless struggle to embrace our sense of entitlement, fraught with pain and elation and ambivalence, is what drives us forward, as individuals and as a species. There’s no such thing as free lunch, but we’re all learning how to deal with each other the hard way, as we instinctively and lustfully throw ourselves into a world that will by definition disappoint us in countless ways and make us inexplicably grateful at the same time.