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One year ago this week, I had to bury the cold dead body of someone I loved more than my own life. Ten days earlier and just before noon, I had answered the phone to hear a stranger from the medical examiner’s office in another town tell me she was dead.
For the 15 years prior to that moment, she had been systematically dismantling herself, beginning in small ways but eventually moving on to big, unsustainable ways. She died like the character in The Sun Also Rises went bankrupt: gradually then suddenly.
And now she is just gone.
When she first started going off the rails I was operating with the illusion that she was just missing some vital piece of information which, once she got it, would cause the lightbulb to come on and bring her back to her senses. I assumed that no one would ever make such self-destructive and unsustainable choices unless they just misunderstood the likely consequences. For two years I lay sleepless at night as I wrestled with ways to get some magical and transforming piece of information into her.
Maybe if I say it this way, I imagined, then she will finally understand.
But I was blind to what was really going on because I operated with the false premise that she wanted out of life what I wanted out of life. My lens for interpreting what was going on was the lens of how I personally would have felt in her circumstances. But that reflected a costly mistake of understanding on my part which led to years of ineffectual efforts to help her. For years, what I intended as help was effectively worthless because it was based on the assumption that what she lacked was more knowledge and understanding. It took me too long to realize that she understood exactly what she was doing.
Some people live in circumstances that you or I might find intolerable. But it does not necessarily follow that they themselves find their circumstances intolerable. I have learned, through hard experiences, that some people prefer their horrible circumstance to any alternative that would require changes in self-discipline or the denial of their appetites. Their problem is not a lack of information but that they have consciously chosen their immediate appetites over their long-term well-being. Usually, they know what they’re doing.
“The thought of being sober the rest of my life depresses me.” Those words, spoken by her, went round and round in my head as I stood over her grave last year.
There is a human tendency, I think, to interpret the actions of others through the lens of our own motivations and desires. We assume, usually, that another person’s experience of his own life is like ours would be if we were living with his circumstances. If I would be miserable, say, being in debt, I assume that another person who is in debt must be miserable. If I would be miserable being addicted to drugs, I assume the drug addict must be miserable. As it happens, though, it is often the case that things like indebtedness and addiction are preferable to people for whom the alternative, to them, seems worse. The choices required to avoid debt, or to live life with sobriety, are actually undesirable to them. It isn’t that they don’t understand or that they lack information. It is that they don’t want the alternative.
This business of projecting our own sensibilities onto others, as a way to understand them, contributes to miscalculation and wasted time in many areas of our lives, not least in the area of politics and public policies. Conservatives often blunder, in my opinion, by projecting their own motivations onto the left. Conservatives are generally trying to have a rational conversation about the utilitarian benefits of various policy prescriptions. Because conservatives want the economy to grow, or stable formation of families, or a reduction in poverty, they assume that the left is operating with similar humanitarian concerns, just misguided or uninformed regarding how to actually achieve those ends. Conservatives, I think, misinterpret what the left is up to in this regard. The left probably has no true interest in a reduction of poverty or in a growing economy. Their actions for two generations suggest they have almost zero interest in helping the poor. The left’s interest in the poor is mostly confined to exploiting sentimental rhetoric about them as a way to consolidate the left’s power. Conservatives project their own sensibilities onto the left when they believe they are engaging in a rational discussion with them as a way to persuade.
There’s a famous scene in Indiana Jones where the title character confronts a sword-wielding Egyptian. The Egyptian demonstrates mastery of his weapon with an elaborate and intricate display. It seems impressive, right up until the moment Indiana Jones pulls a gun and shoots the swordsman.
In the conversation taking place between conservatives and the left, conservatives are the Egyptian and the left is Indiana Jones. In fact, a person could be forgiven for suspecting that the populist revolt which started in 2016 was in recognition of this dynamic. A lot of voters recognized, even if conservative politicos did not, that the left and the right are not playing the same game.
It is vital to develop a reality-based understanding of the motivations of others.
The life of drug dependency and dissipation, lived by my late loved one, drew my wife and me into close contact with all of the pathologies of the urban poor. Over the years I spent thousands of dollars of my own money bailing hapless young men out of jail – men who are entirely unrelated to me. I have also paid their fines, propping these young men up so that they can go to work without the imminent prospect of arrest. I have carried both younger and older men to rehab. I have paid, out of my own pocket, the drug rehab expenses of some of them. I have loaded my car trunk with groceries and carried the groceries into the home of a drug dealer in Texas to feed the hungry children who lived there (the drug dealer apparently having uses for his own money other than feeding his children.) None of this was done as part of some organized service or ministry. My wife and I are just followers of Christ, and these are things we’ve done in the moment, when we had some connection, in an effort to be faithful to our understanding at the time of Christ’s calling in our lives.
So I’m not bragging, I’m just explaining. I actually hate writing about these details. But I don’t know any other way to illustrate the fact that my perspective is informed by the rough and tumble of engaging with real people. When you have seen the filth and cleaned the bodily fluids out of an addict’s apartment, these things cease being theoretical. The personal price to me in heartbreak has been far more costly than the money.
And here is what I have learned: Almost without exception, the people I have tried to help have failed to take advantage of the help I have offered. The young men usually end up back in jail. The drug addicts usually end up back on drugs. It has nothing to do with their race. Zero. It has little to do with information. It has everything to do with their character and with their culture.
They love and value the wrong things. Their understanding of the world is at odds with what is true. Their culture denigrates the very commitments and disciplines that could otherwise alter the trajectories of their lives. They do not value work. They do not accept the benefits of delaying gratification. They are dying, not because they don’t understand, but because they prefer the chaos of their lives to what would be required of them to avoid it. In fact, trendy blame games, like “white privilege”, actually serve as a congenial excuse when you are a young man who won’t stop smoking weed, get out of bed, and maintain a steady job.
This is what I have learned: human freedom and moral agency offer far more explanatory power about a person’s actions than does anything about that person’s material or environmental conditioning.
It is actually hard, in the current environment, to give yourself permission to learn from experience when the conclusions you are inclined to draw depart from the cultural narrative. We are so enamored with experts that sometimes we’re afraid to actually learn from experience and form our own opinions. It could be that I’m only speaking for myself, but I suspect not. For generations, we have been told that human behavior is the result of economic and environmental conditioning (e.g., “poverty causes crime”). What if the dominant narrative has the direction of causality entirely reversed?
Anyway, my own unhappy experience suggests that adult poverty in economically free societies is usually self-inflicted and often knowingly chosen by the poor themselves over the personal impositions they would otherwise have to endure. And by all means, we should avert our eyes from the financial incentives of the poverty industrial complex, with its legions of helpers and experts, all of whom would be put out of work without a strong fictitious narrative regarding the causes of urban poverty. Ensuring that we project our own sensibilities onto our understanding of the urban poor will guarantee many more years of employment for helpers and experts.
Conservatives would be well-served by a wholesale reconsideration of whether perceiving the left as misguided-but-still-persuadable is really a case of projecting conservative sensibilities onto the left. Every conservative meme that mocks the most recent logical absurdity of the left is a testament to the right’s abiding perception that the greater intellectual coherence of our arguments offers some kind of advantage over the left. As if the left cared a whit any longer about intellectual coherence.
There’s an old story told about Joseph Stalin which is, I think, apropos. Somewhere along the way, he had done something that was widely expected to receive the condemnation of the Pope. When someone informed him that the Pope was going to be unhappy with his actions, “Oh really?’, he responded. “How many armies has the Pope?”
The modern left is far more Stalinist than Wilsonian. Conservatives need to consider the possibility that our continued belief, that we can carry the day through superior reason, might be an unhelpful case of projection.Published in