Tonic Judo

(Con­tent note: This is a story about one of the times that I’ve ap­plied my un­der­stand­ing of ra­tio­nal­ity to re­duce the sever­ity of an af­fect-laden situ­a­tion. This may re­mind you of Bayesian Judo, be­cause it in­volves the men­tal availa­bil­ity and use of ba­sic ra­tio­nal­ity tech­niques to perform feats that, al­though sim­ple to perform in hind­sight, leave an im­pres­sion of sur­pris­ing effec­tive­ness on those who don’t know what is gen­er­at­ing the abil­ity to perform the feats. How­ever, I always felt dis­satis­fied with Bayesian Judo be­cause it seemed dishon­est and ul­ti­mately un­pro­duc­tive. Ra­tion­al­ists should ex­ude not only auras of formidabil­ity, but of com­pas­sion. Read as­sured that the par­ti­ci­pants in this story leave mu­tu­ally satis­fied. I haven’t read much about cog­ni­tive be­hav­ioral ther­apy or non­vi­o­lent com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but this will prob­a­bly look like that. Con­sider mov­ing on to some­thing else if what I’ve de­scribed doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would in­ter­est you.)

My friend lost his comb, and it was awful. He was in a frenzy for half an hour, search­ing the en­tire house, slam­ming draw­ers and doors as he went along. He made two phone calls to see if other peo­ple took his comb with­out ask­ing. Every once in a while I would hear a curse or a drawn-out grunt of frus­tra­tion. I kind-of couldn’t be­lieve it.

It makes more sense if you know him. He has a very big thing about peo­ple tak­ing his pos­ses­sions with­out ask­ing, and the thing is in­sen­si­tive to mon­e­tary value.

I just hid for a while, but even­tu­ally he knocked on my door and said that he ‘needed to rant be­cause that was the headspace he was in right now’. So he ranted about some non-comb stuff, and then even­tu­ally we got to the point where we mu­tu­ally ac­knowl­edged that he was ba­si­cally talk­ing at me right now, and not with me, and that he was se­ri­ously pissed about that comb. So we started talk­ing for real.

I said, “I can hardly imag­ine los­ing any one of my pos­ses­sions and be­ing as an­gry as you are right now. I mean, in par­tic­u­lar, I never comb or brush my hair, so I can’t imag­ine it in the most con­crete pos­si­ble sense, but even then, I can’t imag­ine any­thing that I could lose that would make me re­act that way, ex­cept maybe my cel­l­phone or my com­puter. The only way I can imag­ine re­act­ing that way is if it was a con­sis­tent thing, and some­one was con­sis­tently over­step­ping my bound­aries by tak­ing my things with­out ask­ing, how­ever cheap they were. I can’t re­late to this comb thing.”

He said, “It’s not about the comb, it’s that I hate it when peo­ple take my stuff with­out ask­ing. It re­ally pisses me off. It would be differ­ent if I had just lost it, I wouldn’t care. It’s just like, “Why?” Why would you ever as­sume any­thing? Either you’re right, and it’s fine. Or you’re wrong and you se­ri­ously messed up. Why would you ever not just ask?”

“Yeah, why?” I said. He didn’t say any­thing.

I asked again, “Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean if you were to re­ally ask the ques­tion, non-rhetor­i­cally, “Why do peo­ple take things with­out ask­ing?“, what would the an­swer be?”

“Be­cause they’re just fun­da­men­tally in­con­sid­er­ate. Maybe they were raised wrong or some­thing.”

I kind of smiled be­cause I’ve tried to get him to no­tice black boxes in the past. He gets what I’m talk­ing about when I bring it up, so I asked,

“Do you re­ally think that that’s what’s go­ing on in their heads? ‘I’m go­ing to be in­con­sid­er­ate now.‘? Do you re­ally think there’s a lit­tle ‘evil­ness’ node in their brains and that its value is jacked way up?”

“No, they prob­a­bly don’t even no­tice. They’re not think­ing they’re gonna screw me over, they just never think about me at all. They’re gath­er­ing things they need, and then they think ‘Oh, I need a comb, bet­ter take it.’ But it’s my comb. That might be even worse than them be­ing evil. I wouldn’t have used the word ‘in­con­sid­er­ate’ if I was talk­ing about them be­ing de­liber­ate, I would have used a differ­ent word.”

I replied, “Okay, that’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion to make, be­cause I thought of ‘in­con­sid­er­ate­ness’ as pur­pose­ful. But I’m still con­fused, be­cause when I imag­ine hav­ing my things taken be­cause some­one is evil, as op­posed to hav­ing my things taken be­cause some­one made a mis­take, I imag­ine be­ing a lot more up­set that my things were taken by evil than by chance. It’s weird to me be­cause you’re ex­pe­rienc­ing the op­po­site. Why?”

He said, “It’s not about why they took it, it’s about the comb. Do you have any idea how much of an in­con­ve­nience that is? And if they had just thought about it, it wouldn’t have hap­pened. It just re­ally pisses me off that peo­ple like that ex­ist in the world. I speci­fi­cally don’t take other peo­ple’s things. If some­one takes your arm, through ac­ci­dent or evil, and they say “I took your arm be­cause I’m a sadis­tic bas­tard who wanted to take your arm”, or they just take your arm by be­ing reck­less and caus­ing a car ac­ci­dent, then it doesn’t mat­ter. You’d still be like, “Yeah, and I don’t have an arm right now. What do I do with that?“”

I looked kind of amused, and said, “But I feel like the arm thing is a bad anal­ogy, be­cause it doesn’t re­ally fit the situ­a­tion with the comb. Imag­ine if you could also mis­place an arm, as you would any other ob­ject. That’s...hard to imag­ine con­cretely. So, I’m still con­fused be­cause you said be­fore that you wouldn’t have been as mad if you had just lost the comb. But now you’re say­ing that you’re mostly mad be­cause of the in­con­ve­nience of not hav­ing the comb. So I don’t re­ally get it.”

He thought for a minute and said, “Okay, yeah, that doesn’t re­ally make sense. I guess...maybe I was try­ing to look for rea­sons to get more pissed off about the whole thing and brought up the in­con­ve­nience of not hav­ing a comb? That was kind of stupid, I guess.”

I said, “I re­ally am cu­ri­ous. Please tell me, how much did the comb cost?”

“I got it for free with my shears!” He started laugh­ing half-way through the sen­tence.

I laughed, and then I got se­ri­ous again af­ter a beat, and I con­tinued, “And that’s my main point. That some­thing that costs so lit­tle and that wouldn’t have riled you up if it wasn’t so likely that it had been taken rather than mis­placed, stresses both of us out on a Fri­day night, a time dur­ing which we’ve his­tor­i­cally en­joyed our­selves. When the world ran­domly strikes at us and it’s over be­fore we can do any­thing, I feel like the only thing left to con­trol is our re­ac­tion. It’s not that peo­ple should never feel or ex­press anger, or even that they shouldn’t yell or slam things ev­ery once in a while, but that to keep it up for a long time or on a reg­u­lar ba­sis just seems like a cost with no benefit. And I don’t want to sit in here suffer­ing be­cause I know one of my friends is suffer­ing, un­able to for­get that all of this be­gan with a miss­ing comb, some­thing that I would liter­ally be will­ing to pay to re­place. But that wouldn’t have worked. And once again, this is not the same as some­one steal­ing some­thing ex­tremely valuable or con­sis­tently vi­o­lat­ing your per­sonal bound­aries.”

He sighed. And then he said somberly,

“I just wish...that I lived in a world where my cup run­neth over with comb.” And we both laughed. And the ten­sion was gone.