caro thinks

This is Catch-And-Release week. Essays, resumes, bugs, and birds are all congregating in this location, only to be scattered on the wind and the 'net in hopes of catching more new and wonderful things.
date 2001-02-14:17:41
now in bloom on my patio Ladybugs are in bloom!

Are ladybugs that you buy at the store and set loose in the garden considered wild or domestic?

The aphids are really terrible this Spring I, even despite daily washing of the plants with the hose. All of the growing points of the daisy and the cistus are packed with them. I've been anxiously awaiting the first appearance of ladybugs in the nurseries, and Sunday I finally got some. Sunday evening the meteorologists were predicting rain, so I gave the garden the last spraying for now, and in the evening I stationed 2 or 3 bugs on each plant. People tell me that they have trouble with them flying away, but that only happens if you shake out a box of wide-awake bugs in the sun. The trick is to chill them in the refrigerator, and spread them around in the evening before they warm up. That way they sleep in the plants and wake up to a sumptuous breakfast of softbodied insects. Finding room service to be satisfactory, they stick around, sometimes for weeks.

You have to put them near the base of the stems, because they are wired to crawl upward and follow any path to its end, which on plants is the growing tip or the flower bud, which is right where you want them because that's where the aphids go too.

The next morning I check the conservatory plants. Aphids! So I get three bugs and set them to work. I'd never seen a ladybug actually attack an aphid before, so I watch for a while to make sure they're doing their jobs. Sure enough. I am disappointed to see the ladybugs politely excuse themselves when they run into one of the large aphids; but they pounce on the small ones quite viciously, so I'm satisfied to squish the big ones myself. In the garden below, there are charming orange dots decorating all the plants. There's a little bit of bug-warming sun early in the morning. But the Spring rains are coming and it's a little chilly and gray, so the ladybugs are slowing down. Several cold bugs are balled up together behind the snow-white petals of one cyclamen flower. On the cistus, one bug is dutifully jammed head-first between the leaves at the tip of each stem, draining the life out of the enemy. Thank you, bugs.

And now in late afternoon, having stuffed themselves on the buffet, the ladybugs pay me the great compliment of pairing up (and sometimes grouping up) and having sex in various sunny spots--a bug's way of saying that this bed'n'breakfast ain't half-bad.
wildlife Rats make mental maps of places that they go. That's why they are good at finding their way through mazes.

Birds, apparently, do not make maps. They follow their noses to the light or wind. That's why they get flustered when they end up inside a building. Even when the way back out is clearly lit by sunlight, they don't know how to find their way back.

I ate breakfast in a drizzle this morning, sun streaking through the clouds and the drops. Two flycatchers that I think I've correctly identified as Say's Phoebees, descended into the garden, and I froze to watch. As I contemplated the probable fate of my carefully distributed ladybugs, one of the birds, shrieking loudly all the while, hopped through the open door. I had to suppress laughter as it explored the living room, it looked so cute and out-of-place and completely unafraid; I was afraid to move or make a sound that would frighten it further into the house. Its friend hovered around the door, chirping hesitantly to its now-silent partner lurking inside this weird cave, but suddenly decided to join the fun. From where I sat in the rain, I could see them cruising casually around, stopping to peck at things in the carpet, leaping up onto furniture to get a better sense of the place. One of them rounded the corner and disappeared under the stairs.

I was just beginning to wonder when panic would set in, when one of the birds flew toward the door and hit the glass. Unperturbed, it was perfectly content to try that strategy a few more times, always returning to perch on the tall corn plant sitting directly in front of the open door. Why did it keep flying toward the glass, when the door was wide open? The door is 12 feet wide, and half of which was covered by the glass, half open to the wind and the sky. I decided that I needed to draw the blinds over the closed half and block off the other windows--and as I contemplated how to do this without terrifying the bird, it got bored with that game and instead started up the stairs, one at a time. Ah, ha. That's where the other one must be too.

I could hear them rustling the blinds in my bedroom and clattering on the edges of plant pots. Of course they would wander into a south-west conservatory--why go anywhere else? And they would have just enough time to locate and consume the three ladybugs I had charged with the responsibility of removing aphids from the bouvardia. I followed them up with the camera. I got a few dark pictures of wild birds perched prettily in the rubber tree before they started bashing themselves against the window and tangling with the blinds. There was nothing to do but take out one of the screens and draw the blinds over that window too. While I was making these preparations, the birds called a red alert. One of them crouched low, tail spread wide, on the floor, making little sideways danger-avoiding hops, just the way rats do during an alert (surprising how similar rodents and birds can look and act); the other tried to fly into a deep blue painting depicting sunrise over the desert and ending up clinging to the top edge. When the room darkened except for that one light gray rectangle of hope, they finally found their way out.
objectivist doctrine reconsidered


(Note: 'Sanction' is a weird word. In some contexts it means 'approval'. In others, it means 'punishment'. Herein, I use the word in the objecti-sense of 'approval' because I'm talking mostly about an objectivist context.)

An issue that I've had a hard time with is the orthodox Randian issue of sanction; specifically, the idea that one should avoid sanctioning the moral wrong-doing of others.

It's an appealing idea in theory, but it's a bit hard to practice, simply because there are so many thoughtless, ill-intentioned, mean-spirited, resentful, vengeful, and even downright viciously evil people in the world, that you can't possibly remain alive and avoid sanctioning someone who has treated you or someone else irrationally. And because, even when you think a particular person deserves to be punished by the removal of your sanction, most of the time you end up punishing a whole bunch of people who don't deserve to be so punished--not the least of whom is you yourself.

It's especially hard for me, having so many friends and acquaintances and colleagues who are objectivists, many of whom subscribe to one or another dogmatic versions of the doctrine of sanction. I don't think most of them really get what it's about. They are apt to engage in punishing people on a whim, and based entirely on unexamined emotional responses. In the idea that sanction should be withheld for moral wrong-doing, Rand provides a very convenient way for people who are inclined to base their actions on their unexamined emotions, to take revenge upon people without really thinking about what it all means and how it really squares with human life as the standard of value and their own happiness as their highest moral purpose.

People beat each other over the head with the doctrine. When I left the nazi, for example, he pointed out that of course I wouldn't have any more to do with him, given that I had complained so bitterly of his personal treatment of me. I believe that what he really meant was that he didn't want anything more to do with me; but of course he would have had to have defended that, and there was no defense other than "I'm mad at you" which is a defense not "sanctioned" in the objectivist community. Or else he was simply yanking my chain, pointing out all the incomparable benefits that I'd be losing by breaking up with him, that I'd no longer have the privelege of speaking to him, if I was no longer sleeping with him, and no woman could bear such a terrible loss.

Yet it hadn't been obvious to me that I should lose these things. Yes, average, normal males do sometimes express their bitterness at the end of a romantic relationship by sullenly refusing to have anything else to do with their former partners. I guess I'm still a little naive, and I don't expect that kind of wildly emotionally-motivated but rationally unjustifiable reaction from objectivists, especially when they are the type that go around criticizing people for their emotionally-motivated actions. I continue to hold out hope for all people, continue to ask, "What has my not being romantically involved with you, or friends with you, to do with our professional relationships?" Indeed, I wouldn't trust the nazi with important responsibilities or enter anything but iron-clad legal contractual agreements in the presence of witnesses at this point, but that is because I don't trust him, not because I "withdrew my sanction" in order to punish him. These are different things. Why should I punish myself, for evil that he did? If there is some unique benefit that he could offer me, why not take it, as long as I would be amply protected from his violence by the presence of other people?

If the end of a friendship or a romance also must entail the end of all other associations, then how does one justify doing business with or in the vicinity of people who are not one's friends? Does anyone ever address this question? Or is it that you get to associate with people in all and only those cases in which you haven't already decided that you aren't inclined to be friends with each other?

Yet there is something about the issue of not sanctioning evil that strikes a chord with earlier versions of myself; that chord is almost silent now in light of this winter's psychological restructuring, but I can still hear a whisper of it. I've thought a lot about it in the context of the question, "How can I be nice to humans, even if I happen to think that they don't deserve it?" One part of it goes like this:

One of the lesser benefits of being nice to someone who has done you wrong, is that it gives them very little excuse or motivation for retaliation. Suppose you choose to attempt to hurt someone in the interest of seeking justice, in a tit-for-tat fashion. If she did you wrong intentionally, then it is very likely that she is the sort of person who would be happy to enter into an all-out brawl (literal or figurative) with you, if only you give her an opening. I know many such people. Though I have keenly felt the injustice of such situations, I have come to believe that attempting to play their game, however slightly or however far removed from the original situation, only provokes them to worse and worse behavior. In some cases, even suggesting that you find something objectionable about their actions provokes the person to retaliate at an escalated level. Someone who would hurt you intentionally, lie to you, steal from you, cheat you, abandon you in a case of life or death--a person capable of such things is just ready and waiting for a chance to "take revenge" should you retaliate in any way. And the funny thing is, if the person actually has any conscience at all, she will be eager to find excuses to retaliate. Because then, in the amazing confabulatory reconstruction that ensues, she will find a way to reverse the order of events, so that your retaliatory action is taken as the very motive and the excuse and the justification, for her prior crime against you. There has to be some way to assuage that aching conscience, and the excuse your retaliation provides may as well be the way.

But most importantly, whether you anticipate retaliation or not, your own mental health is at stake. There is a difference between telling someone that what they did was OK (or worse, morally justifiable) on the one hand, and on the other hand finding a way to understand, for your own mental well-being, what was done to you. I always prefer explanations to bare apologies. The former make sense of the universe, while the best the latter can do is show some recognition that your universe was made a little less comprehensible by the action. And where neither is forthcoming, the reason to continue to be nice is your own entitlement to peace of mind. This is a theme I will elaborate on in forthcoming work; for now I mention only my own progress.

Finding a way to understand what was done can be exceedingly difficult, for example if the crime was particularly horrid, or went against the proclaimed moral system of the perpetrator. How could someone break a promise, for example, if integrity, honesty, and pride were part of that person's moral code?

I used to find such occurrences unthinkable, even when they happened--and happened again and again!

I'm learning to take inspiration from the bad things that people deal out to me. It's still difficult for me to return niceness for meanness, but I think that is only because I still have to do some more psychological restructuring--that's the project for February! It's going pretty well so far. I had a phone conversation today in which I very reflexively kept reminding myself that this person simply isn't capable of doing any better, so there's no point in being disappointed in him. That's a big step forward for me. I tend to hold people to the same standards to which I hold myself, especially if they are objectivists. And I'm just beginning to realize why that is so, why it is not in accordance with reality, and how, in a phrase, to be nice to people anyway.

Consistency has been a driving force in my life since I was a preschooler. Having a lunatic for a mother and living in an urban jungle made this almost inevitable. My mother was nuts, but she was honest, and therefore the inconsistency stood out like a sore thumb; the wild animals in my neighborhood were completely dishonest, unreliable, and also inconsistent. Justice, as an instantiation consistency and honesty, therefore was the obvious contradictory to all that. Contrast objects are invaluable in this respect. People need good role models, true; but they also need to get their hands dirty with the contrast objects, to see how awful it could be otherwse. Consistency, honesty, and justice became the principles around which I organized my psyche. These are powerful principles, far-reaching and all-encompassing, and with good reason: they are the very formulations of objectivity. My hopes for a community that was based on these principles led me to forget the animal nature that lurked just beneath the surface. Merely being able to use language and memorize principles doesn't make an animal human.

I used to think that, in comparison to other people, I was pretty dumb. When I was small, I couldn't keep up with what I know now were simply inconsistencies and instances of dishonesty and injustice. And later, I felt pretty dumb because couldn't keep track of all the jargon and name-dropping that I now know to be desperate bluffing. I know now that I always saw right through it, then second-guessed myself, positive that it couldn't possibly be the case that people would behave so badly. From a young age I blamed myself for not being able to understand these things or predict their occurrence. It was a puzzle that just kept getting worse, until I met the nazi, and completely hit rock-bottom. He was the embodiment of all the mistakes I'd made in an effort to survive in an irrational society, all the bad behavior I'd accepted and forgiven and immediately forgotten in an attempt to think well of the people whose actions were unforgivable. It was in the aftermath of my relationship with him, that the scales began to fall from my eyes, facades began to crumble all around me, and I began to see people as they really are--but only just a touch, and not without a great deal of backsliding into forgetfulness and naivite, my faithful protectors since infancy. It was simply easier to believe that I wasn't very smart, that I just didn't understand, that I didn't, as Nathaniel Branden puts it, see what I saw and know what I knew. Like Berkeley's God, who keeps the world in existence for us while we are not looking at it, I was the god who kept the world rational and sane and in one piece despite what everyone else was up to. I had to. I would gone insane, otherwise.

At least, it was easier for the little girl to engage in this daily conversion of the irrational into the rational. But it's a lot of work, finding rational explanations and excuses for all the nasty things people do and say. For the woman, it created no end of trouble, and landed net after net of ill-intentioned persons and perfect criminals who clung to her infinite forgiveness like their one last life-vest in a sea of just judgment. Instead of brushing them off and seeking out better companions, she dug out whatever small glimmer of goodness she could find in them and held that up as a prize. And in the end she had to be grateful to the nazi for clinging the hardest and in the most obvious way, for being rock-bottom, and for grinding her face into rock-bottom until she finally got it.

I still believe that it is reasonable and psychologically healthy to look for the good in people. Moreso than ever now, I believe Pollyanna is correct. Jesus too. I am a fisher of men. But now, I strive to hold only those small bits of goodness in my heart. Instead of blaming myself for what they do wrong and imagining them to be better than they are, I keep the horrid bits away with a very long stick. And through it all, I keep learning ways to be nice to them, even when they don't deserve it, because I never applied for the job of Police Officer to the Universe. I am honest because I deserve it, and similarly I am nice because I deserve it.

This is the most important thing: the scales of justice are balanced. People who do intentional evil get what they deserve, even when it looks on the surface like they've gotten away with it. And they get what they deserve whether you or I or all the human race withhold our sanction or not, because, in fact, the universe does make sense.

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