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Story One:

When a was very young I asked my Dad what the fastest route was to some destination. At this point I forget the destination, someplace close as I recall. He responded that it basically took the same time regardless of the route. Of course being a pedantic nerd, albeit a tiny one (some things never change) I immediately seized on this statement. “Are you saying that I could drive miles out of my way and it would still take the same amount of time?!?” I asked incredulously.

Of course that’s not what he was trying to say. He was saying that if there were several obvious ways you might use to go somewhere that they all ended up taking about the same amount of time. But, realizing who he was dealing with, I’m sure that it was clear to him that trying to explain that would just lead to more incredulity so he decided to take the opposite approach, and see if that would placate the snarky little demon he had somehow ended up with. (Though insofar as genetics explain anything he wasn’t entirely blameless.) The other extreme was to give a very precise answer (or at least one that would require a lot of precision) and explained that it depended on how fast you drove, how close you cut corners, and things like that.

This answer was more satisfying to me than the first answer, which is interesting because over the years it’s become apparent to me that it was less useful. Most routes are functionally equivalent and if you accept that, there’s a whole class of decisions you no longer need to worry about. If nothing else, this can help reduce decision fatigue, a non-trivial problem these days. Far more important, the answer also embeds the wisdom that your life is better if you live it in such a way where you don’t have to worry whether one route is two minutes faster than another. My wife would be quick to point out here that I am still a long way away from living that life. She gets particularly annoyed when I ask for updates on the Google Map ETA to see if I’ve shaved any time off. (Though that is more about me speeding than choosing one route over another, though I’m not sure that clarification makes it better.)

Regardless of how good I am at being the kind of person who doesn’t worry about one route being a couple of minutes faster than another, or whether I can shave a minute off my arrival time by going 79 rather than 77 mph, I can at least recognize the wisdom of striving for that state, and the wisdom of father’s original answer. In fact, we might go so far as to say that the two answers demonstrate the difference between useless but obvious knowledge and useful but less obvious wisdom. We might go even farther than that and say that there are numerous people who are acting in the same snarky and pedantic fashion I was oh so many years ago, rejecting wisdom in favor of precise, but ultimately valueless knowledge.

Examples of this are numerous, but most fall into the category of defining grievances with ever increasing specificity. A perfect example is the term “microaggression”. Though when it comes to encyclopedic knowledge of every bad thing the other side has done, the far-right is even or ahead of the far-left.

It reminds me of a book I just got done reading: The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester, it’s a history of engineering, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. One of the things that makes it interesting is that he titles each chapter with the tolerances the historical era under discussion was capable of achieving. The first chapter is 0.1 or a tenth of an inch, and in later chapters he goes down to nanometers and in final chapters well past that. The point of this tangent is that I can imagine the same thing happening with grievances. We started with normal aggressions, we are now at microaggressions and soon we’ll be measuring nanoaggressions (if we aren’t already.)

Basically, we’re in a situation where people imagine that there’s a better route out there. They’re already mad that they’re on the route society forced them to take. But then additionally everytime it seems the car is going too slow or taking a corner too cautiously they get angry because this route, which is already not ideal, is taking even longer. And yes this is probably all true, and perhaps it’s very satisfying to point it all out, to identify all the microaggressions, all the times people ask, “Where are you from?” Or to know in excruciating detail all the bad things which have happened in the past. There’s a lot of focus on that knowledge, and very little on the wisdom that most routes end up being pretty much the same, and you’d be much better off if you just focused on enjoying the ride.

Story Two:

Unlike kids these days, I had a job when I was in high school. I worked at the local pizza place. Though, during the summer between my junior and senior year, I took the high school equivalent of a sabbatical, so I could attend the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. When I returned to work I discovered that I had missed out on some high drama. Apparently two of my co-workers Cindy and Howard had sort of had a relationship, and this sort of relationship ended badly, but not in the way you might expect.

Apparently they’d been on a couple of dates and those had gone well and then they kind of got stuck in the transition to the next level. Both of them really liked the other but they were suffering from a lack of confidence and wanted the other person to make the next move. So far so normal, but both choose the tactic of subtly avoiding the other hoping to draw them out into doing something definitive. For example if I walk right by you and say “Hi” and you say “Hi” back that proves nothing, but if I walk around the other way, so that you see me, but I don’t walk past you and then you chase me down and say “Hi” well that means you like me. Such is the insanity of high school relationships. But this isn’t the point of the story.

As I reconstructed it after the fact it seems that this tactic of subtle avoidance had not worked for either of them and had escalated to outright cruelty which both had taken at face value rather than realizing that it was basically the equivalent of having their pigtails pulled. Things had gotten so bad that the pizza place had ended up divided into warring camps, with every employee forced to pick one side or the other. Such was the condition of things when I returned from my “sabbatical” and started working again. I had been friends with both Howard and Cindy, and I missed the heat of the conflict and therefore also missed having to swear allegiance to one or the other. Meaning that when I returned I was the only person, insofar as I could tell, who was still friends with both of them, and therefore the only person who could get both sides of the story I just related. The story of two people who actually liked each other, and should have been very happy together, at least for as long as high schoolers are ever happy together, but who somehow couldn’t figure out that the other person felt the same way they did.

The moral of this story is that two people can want exactly the same thing. They could be in a situation where there exists no impediment to them achieving this thing, other than themselves. And, despite all this, communication and coordination are still sometimes tricky enough that they can fail to get it. In the end my two friends were probably too concerned with signalling “hard to get” and not enough with communicating “I like you”. I haven’t talked very much in this space about signalling theory, and I probably should, but it definitely applies here.

Does this moral extend to the current political crisis? Are the two sides just like Cindy and Howard? Deep down they both love America and want to work together, but a series of ever increasing slights has convinced them that it will never happen because as far as they can tell the other side hates America and will never agree to work together?

One imagines that if Howard and Cindy had come together late one night and confessed their true feelings for each other, heedless of the rain that poured down all around them, like in the movies, that it would have all worked out. Is there some rain-soaked confession of love we could imagine between Republicans and Democrats? Left and Right? Perhaps, there did seem to be some of that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (I guess we’ve arrived at equating terrorism with rain?) but it seems unlikely. Particularly given that politics is getting more multipolar by the day, and the associated signalling is getting more and more intense. Meaning we don’t just need two people to stand in the rain and confess their love, we need hundreds of different ideologies to all confess their love simultaneously. And if you think it’s difficult with just two…

Story Three:

When I was in seventh grade I was a pretty scrawny kid, and a pretty scrawny nerd to boot. Predictably I got bullied. There was one person in particular who kept giving me crap. We’ll call him Mark. As I recall I had first period with Mark, and he would pick on me before class started, and then on the way back from class to my locker. This went one for quite a while, but finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I threw a punch, and started a fight.

I wish I could say that I won that fight, but I didn’t. It’s not like I was horribly injured or anything, but I definitely got the worst of it. I forget how it ended, if some teacher broke it up, or if it just kind of fizzled out after a few swings. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to do that again, and probably even thinking that it was stupid, particularly given that I’d lost, but you know what? It worked. All those people who told me that bullies want easy targets and if you fight back, even if you end up losing, they’ll find someone else to pick on? They were right as far as I could tell. He stopped picking on me, perhaps not entirely, I’m sure he still made a comment here or there, but after the fight it was much better.

What’s perhaps even more interesting is that now, decades later, Mark apparently admires me? For example, he posted his yearbook picture, but not just his picture, it included a few of the pictures around his, of which mine was one, and he said something like, “And the handsome fellow just above me is Mr. Richey.” Now I was not handsome as child, and I couldn’t let such a gross inaccuracy stand, so breaking from my normal policy of never commenting on Facebook I pointed out the inaccuracy of the statement.  He retorted by saying it didn’t matter, that I was focused on the things that were truly important. (I assume he meant academics, though what I was really focused on during that time was Dungeons and Dragons.)

I talked in a previous post about the Coddling of the American Mind, the need for suffering and the difficulty of determining how much suffering was enough. Obviously getting into a fight and losing it caused me to suffer. Though apparently he suffered as well, at least enough to stop bullying me and to later think I was awesome rather than pathetic. In my case, which I understand is just a single data point, and not even a very good one, it seems clear to me that the only possible way to resolve that dispute was through violence, because my willingness to throw a punch was the only signal (yes we’re back to talking about signalling) clear enough for him to understand.

I hear a lot of talk these days about bullying in schools, but I don’t hear much about fighting. Do kids still fight in schools? I assume they must, but one wonders if it’s bifurcated, with rich, suburban schools having almost no fighting but lots of bullying, and poor inner city schools having less bullying, but the fighting they do have being more dangerous? They do say that bullying is on the rise, is there any part of that rise that can be ascribed to less fighting? Does low level fighting of the kind I described in my story, create sort of an informal justice system that’s closer to the source of the problem and thus more immediate? When talking about coddled kids is this one of the ways in which we coddling them? Do we need to allow kids to freely fight in the same way we need to allow them to freely range?

In a larger sense there’s the issue of the signal of violence. Are there some conflicts which can only be resolved when one side signals that it’s willing to inflict more violence on the opposition than opposition is comfortable with? That’s basically what happened in the story, and certainly in the past people commonly felt that some issues could only be decided by the shedding of blood. Many people now feel that we’re past that time, that we can settle our differences without resorting to violence. Let’s hope they’re correct, but it appears to be getting less likely. I have seen no evidence that we’re getting better at settling differences, and lots of evidence that things are heading towards violence.

Story Four:

This story didn’t happen to me, but it did happen while I was young, so I’m tossing it in here anyway.

My grandmother went on an expensive trip to India and Nepal. While in Nepal she had the opportunity to take a helicopter ride and see Mount Everest. I forget exactly what the helicopter ride cost. I want to say somewhere in the neighborhood of $80. She decided that was too expensive and so she declined the offer. Upon her return my father pointed out that if you live in Utah the cost to see Everest is probably thousands of dollars, and that she had just refused to pay the last $80.

I call this the Everest Fallacy and it’s sort of the opposite of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. In the one you’re almost to your goal and you abandon it after paying the bulk of the cost. In the other you’re never going to reach your goal, but you refuse to abandon it because you’ve already spent so much.

I wonder if that’s where civilization is. People talk about the enormous effort and expense required to colonize Mars or make it out of the Solar System, and I don’t wish to minimize that, in fact I’ve pointed out at some length how difficult it is, so difficult I’m doubtful we’ll do it. But it’s also important to remember, when people bemoan the cost of a space program, that we’ve already spent the first quadrillion dollars, and the initial 200,000 years, we’re now just refusing to spend the last few trillion dollars. And that’s only if we go back to the first homo sapien. If we consider what it takes to go from a dead planet to life leaving the solar system we’ve spent a lot more than that, and now we’re just refusing to spend that last little bit. And yes it might take a sacrifice, in the same way that my grandmother probably felt that $80 was a sacrifice, but let’s be clear, humanity is in Nepal already and it took a lot of effort to get there…

Story Five:

If you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) and you’ve served a mission then it’s guaranteed that you end up with a lot of stories from that period. I’m no exception. And I could spend ten thousand more words telling you stories from the two years I spent in the Netherlands, but most don’t have a moral, or rather they do, but that moral is: Have faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps one of these days I’ll devote an entire post to that, but this post has developed around a more secular theme, and, fortunately, my mission produced some of those stories as well.

I mentioned earlier that I spent two years in the Netherlands, that’s not quite true, I spent two years total on my mission but only 22 months of that was in the Netherlands. The first two months I spent in the Missionary Training Center on the BYU campus in Provo learning Dutch with a group of ten other missionaries. In addition to my group there was another group learning Dutch that was four weeks ahead of us. This story concerns one of the members of that slightly older group. When I was introduced to this particular missionary I asked him where he was from, when he said Canada, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

It was a dumb throw away joke, that kind of thing that’s so obviously untrue as to clearly be a joke and as I said, not a very good one at that. I actually thought it was cool that he was from Canada, as far as I know he was the first Canadian I had met. I didn’t interact with him much beyond that, in the four weeks of overlap we had, and I didn’t think much of him or my comment.

We both ended up serving in the Netherlands (at the time some of the missionaries who had learned Dutch ended up in Flemish speaking Belgium) but we didn’t serve in any of the same areas or even any of the same zones. That is until my last area, where I ended up replacing him. I don’t remember if I noticed any initial cold shoulder or anything like that, but after the local members of the church got to know me a little bit they started to reveal that the Canadian missionary which had preceded me had told them all that I was a jerk. (He may have used stronger language than that, he may have even said it in Dutch, I don’t recall the exact terminology.) When I asked them what evidence he had produced for this calumny, they told me the story of the “I’m sorry” comment from Missionary Training Center. When I asked if there was anything else there didn’t appear to be. He had apparently obsessed over that comment for nearly two years.

Since that time I have met many Canadians and count most of them as good friends. And fortunately I haven’t met any who were as humorless as the Canadian missionary. In fact, the Canadians I’ve told this story to (all of them) think it’s pretty funny that he was offended by the phrase “I’m sorry” given how typically Canadian that word “sorry” is.

With this story we end where we began, with what I suppose is another example of a microaggression, though years before the term first appeared, and not leveled against a group that normally gets brought up in discussions of prejudice and discrimination. And once again it would have been wiser for the Canadian missionary to not have obsessed for two years over a single comment made by a dumb kid. (Notice I’m a dumb kid in both stories, I’m sure there’s another lesson there.) But, of course, the world is trending in the exact opposite direction, with more and more people latching on to smaller and smaller things over a longer and longer time horizon. If this continues it’s not going to end well, for anyone.

Most of these stories allude to my past ignorance. If you want to contribute to the ongoing effort to fight this ignorance, please consider donating.

Note: I’ll be taking next week off for the holidays, so I’ll see you in two weeks. In the meantime Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!