Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Bigger Picture


The character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often held up as the poster child for indecisiveness. However, the literary elite have called him the most intelligent character in all of literature. Indecision can be a sign of intelligence, while at the other end of the spectrum are people who are great at making up their minds and sticking to their guns (often literally), and who keep things simple by refusing to consider, process, or otherwise pay attention to conflicting information.

This post is about the struggle to see the bigger picture—not in books or plays, but the little trials that pepper our lives. I offer three case studies from my life to illustrate the complexities of honing your perspective.

Case study #1 – The Escalator

I was hurrying to Bart, the Bay Area commuter train, heading home from work. As I made my way down the escalator, two steps at a time, my train was rolling into the station below—it looked like I’d just make it. But suddenly, an obstruction: a couple was standing, side by side, instead of walking down the escalator. The young man, eighteen or so, was kind of hanging on his girlfriend. They seemed to be in their own little world, like Tony and Maria when they meet for the first time at the high school dance in “West Side Story”—you know, where the rest of the dancers blur out, the music becomes muted, and the two have tunnel vision (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here and watch from a little over 4½ minutes in). Now, I’m all for people getting together and enjoying their romance and everything, but in a crowded train station during the commute hour? I was pretty ticked. I mean, who did they think they were? Were they so busy being in love they didn’t realize they were holding people up?

On top of being about to miss my train, my own annoyance annoyed me. I felt that I ought to be one of those philosophical types who thinks, “Ah, young love!” and sighs with pleasure, maybe winks at the happy couple. But I wasn’t the magnanimous sort—I was a rushed commuter absorbed in his own impatience, barely calm enough to accept the delay, much less think happy thoughts about the young lovers. Was I jealous of these two, of their youth and their fresh romance and carefree attitude? Or was I really just in a hurry? I was on the brink of saying, “Excuse me, coming through!” or perhaps glaring at them. But ultimately I managed to suck it up and simply resign myself to getting the next train.

Good thing. As I followed the pair off the escalator and got a better look, I realized that the guy was blind. He wasn’t hanging on his girlfriend—he was just getting some help on the escalator. I was instantly awash with relief for not having said or done anything. What a jerk I’d have seemed if I’d rushed them along or given them stink-eye. How certain I’d been about my instant assessment of the situation—and how wrong! I think back to this near-miss whenever I’m on the brink of a snap judgment during a social conflict.

Case Study #2 – The Plastic Bag

Recently I was working on something in my home office when I heard my daughter Lindsay bawling. I figured it would be a typically short-lived outburst, but she kept it up for awhile. When it became obvious my wife wasn’t going to do anything about it, I asked her what our daughter was crying about. “A plastic bag,” she replied, a hint of annoyance in her voice.

If you think I’m about to speak ill of my wife, think again. I can relate to her frustration. Lindsay cries a lot. This isn’t uncommon for her age, but that doesn’t make the crying any quieter. And as parents, we’re torn about how to react. If we run over and make a big fuss, we’re kind of indulging our daughter, perhaps even promoting her outsized response to life’s frustrations. And by making a big show of sympathy we may be dragging out her despair, helping her overinflate a minor grievance.

I was the crying kind of kid myself, but by older brothers never let me get away with it. They’d mock me, sarcastically gushing, “Oh, poor little baby!” Of course this made me feel worse, and cry harder, but it made me mad, too, and I credit the frequent repetition of this scenario with helping to make me the scrapper that I am today. Being retroactively grateful for my brothers’ taunts, I cannot default to coddling my own child whenever she cries.

Still, Lindsay was obviously really upset about something, and anyway I felt like taking a break from what I’d been doing, so I sought her out. She tried to run away—being more angry than sad, I realized—but I scooped her up, grabbed a chair, and sat her down on my lap. (Another reason for my intervention: it won’t be long before she’s too big to sit on my lap, so I’m enjoying it while I can.) I asked her to tell me all about it. As she sputtered and sobbed, the full story gradually came out.

Her older sister Alexa had a friend over and they were playing at something that involved large Ziploc bags. Lindsay was tagging along, and the two older girls gave her a bag and asked her to fill it with water and bring it back to them. But it was a trick: the bag had a hole in it! They expected her to carry the thing back leaking water all over the place; if they were lucky, she’d even get in trouble.

This is the kind of thing older siblings are always doing. I remember one time during my pre-teen years when I was at a video arcade with a friend playing Tempest and we got tired of my friend’s little brother hanging around watching us play. So we gave him fifteen cents and told him to head down to Dairy Queen, a couple blocks away, to buy us some whip. (I’d once seen it on the menu under “toppings.”) Happy to be included, even in a servile role, my friend’s brother gamely headed out on the errand. It was a really hot summer day, and this was the most popular Dairy Queen in town, and the poor kid stood in line for at least half an hour before getting to the little window and being told he couldn’t just buy whip by itself. He came back bearing the bad news, and—managing not to laugh—we scolded him: “Doggone it, we told you to get us whip! What do you mean they won’t sell it to you?! It’s right there on the menu! Now you march straight back there and get us our whip!” (We will both go to Hell for this, of course.)

Mostly, though, I was on the other end of these sibling affairs, being brushed off by older brothers who wanted nothing to do with me. I remember once how Max (the next oldest) and I once wanted to play in our bigger brothers’ friend’s clubhouse. They refused to let us in. Max demanded a reason, so they told him it was because his nose was running and he had an ugly bruise on his forehead. They even made a song to taunt him with: “No snotty-pot bruise-heads allowed in the clubhouse!”

Now, Lindsay’s response to her sister’s prank was pretty clever—she was no dupe. She spotted the hole in the bag, and instead of merely pointing out the older girls’ treachery (which would have accomplished nothing), she devised a clever retaliatory plan: she would swap out the defective bag for a perfect one, and casually return with it properly filled, not leaking a drop. She could pretend to be sweetly accommodating, and watch with delight as the other girls, astonished, beheld her achievement. It would be, in the parlance of childhood triumphs, a “burn-royal-fry.” (If this term confuses you, allow me to explain. When I was a kid, getting the better of somebody was called a “burn.” Getting him real good was a “burn-royal.” A true burn-royal-fry, needless to say, was exceedingly rare.)

But (my daughter now sobbed), her plan did not work out. She managed to obtain a good Ziploc bag, but in the process of trying to open it, she ripped it, and it turned out to be the last Ziploc bag in the house, and now everything was ruined. This was the real cause of the outburst: she’d had the perfect plan but she botched it through sheer clumsiness and haplessness. She was furious with herself.

Poor kid. It’s my fault: she’s clearly got the Albert self-flogging gene. Not all of us Alberts have it, but it’s not uncommon in our family. Of course, this excess of self criticism—a refusal to be compassionate with oneself—is not unique to us. I remember a childhood pal who made a mistake during his piano recital and actually stopped playing so he could smack himself in the head and say, “Stupid! Stupid!” I’ve also seen self-flogging behavior on TV when a pro soccer player has screwed up and falls to his knees, tearing at his hair. Etc.

But the self-flogging gene isn’t all bad; it all depends on how it pans out. If it leads you toward sorrow, you can become paralyzed, depressed. But if it leads to toward anger, you might either a) hit yourself in the head and say “Stupid!” or b) take some constructive action. So, hearing Lindsay’s story now, I realized the best thing I could do would be salvage her original scheme. I found some food in a large Ziploc in the fridge, dumped it out, and gave her the bag. Her spirits were instantly restored, and she galloped happily away toward the sink.

My point here is that to fully appreciate Lindsay’s grief, it’s not enough to know about the ripped bag. You also have to have been a younger sibling: it takes an understanding of the casual cruelty with which an older sibling turns the younger into a plaything on the way to rejecting her. Moreover, it takes a kindred pugnacious spirit. And, to truly feel Lindsay’s pain at the ripped bag, you need to share with her the self-flogging gene. Given the full picture of the poor kid’s angst, it’s almost a miracle she found anybody who could truly understand and relate.

Case Study #3 - Mad Max

When I was about twelve, I saw “Mad Max,” an action movie about a renegade cop taking revenge on a gang of psychotic bikers. But I came in late, to a scene where one of the cops, Jim Goose, goes berserk and tries to beat up some guy, and has to be held back by his fellow cops. I was fairly horrified at his behavior.

However, some time later I saw the whole movie from the beginning, and had a totally different reaction. Goose was a hugely likeable character, and the guy he tried to beat up, Johnny the Boy, was a little bastard who liked to terrorize small towns, raping and pillaging just for fun. In the scene where Goose loses his temper, Johnny and various other thugs had just been released from prison because no witnesses showed up for the trial, being too cowed by the gang to testify. In this context, Goose’s outburst seemed completely appropriate, and I was swept right along with the rest of the movie, where Max hunts down the gang members one by one and murders them.

For years I had fond memories of that film, and my brothers and friends and I frequently quoted bits of its dialog, but somewhere along the line it dawned on me that this movie is a guilty pleasure at best. Obviously it’s not a morality tale, and isn’t supposed to be anything but entertainment, but for a mature person to fully buy into the revenge fantasy, as I had as a teenager, would be kind of sick. My malleable teenage mind, I have come to understand, had been manipulated by the filmmakers. Looking back at Goose’s blowup, I realize my reaction has come full circle: I was right to be appalled when I first saw it.

This presents an interesting case in my “big picture” discussion. Sometimes a total lack of context is just fine, because context doesn’t always matter. For example, police brutality is never okay, period. Looking at a somewhat bigger picture—such as the one the filmmakers made—gets you into dangerous territory: you’re lured into an extreme position by a totally one-sided narrative. The real big picture here requires a nuanced appreciation for what a filmmaker may do to titillate a jaded audience, without regard to how his movie, and others like it, may gradually pollute our attitudes.

The upshot of today’s exploration?

  • Stop and think, hard, before you accost a complete stranger.
  • Appreciate that, though it might take a highly specific perspective to realize it, sometimes a plastic bag is actually worth crying over.
  • Try to remember that in the quest for the big picture, sometimes bigger isn’t big enough.

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