Against my better judgement, the lights in my apartment are connected to a wireless network controlled via an app. There are physical buttons, but they are located near the plugs, at ground level and often behind obstructions. When I leave, turning off the light requires digging my phone out of my pocket, typing in the unlock code, opening the app, waiting for it to detect the network, then tapping a button to turn off the light. I do all of this while standing an inch or so away from the old wall switch, the use of which would achieve the same result in a fraction of the time. As a result of this modernity, every time I leave the apartment, I feel the uncontrollable urge to make sure I’m listening to the title theme from French director Jacques Tati’s 1958 masterpiece Mon Oncle. I am, at that moment, Monsieur Hulot. Continue reading…
Posted May 31, 2012
– My Name is Earl, “O Karma, Where Art Thou?” Season 1, Episode 12
While I was packing returns at the bookstore where I work, a random book on relationships caught my eye. I spent less than a minute flipping through it and unfortunately I can’t remember the title, but as far as I could tell the basic message was “it’s all your fault.” Not the “you thought it, you brought it” of The Secret, or the accumulated karmic debt of My Name is Earl. More the “everything I do, I do it for me” of Ayn Rand.
The point I took out of the book (henceforth The Book) was that everything we do is motivated by self-interest, so whatever’s wrong in your relationships it’s all your fault for doing what you wanted to. ‘Fess up. It made me think of Rhonda Byrne’s Oprah pick best-selling book/movie combo The Secret, which focuses on the Law of Attraction: basically the power of positive or negative thinking to intentionally bring things you want into your life and accidentally bring things you really don’t.
Following the implications of The Secret, apparently all you have to do to be thin is think thin thoughts. I suppose that means if you’re fat, it’s because you think fat thoughts, assuming you got that far without telling her to go to hell for criticizing your body in the first place. And if only that were the sketchiest thing The Secret implies people attract to themselves: cancer or genocide anyone? Note to self: make sure not to think “same wavelength” thoughts about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I do not want to meet those guys.
Part of Rhonda Byrne’s Secret is that true happiness comes from putting yourself before others. This seems like a similar message to The Book, but I think there’s a difference between saying we’re responsible for what we get because thinking makes it so, and saying that we’re responsible for what we get because we always do what’s best for ourselves. The second thing is a lot closer to Ayn Rand’s version of Egoism. Rand argues that to both fulfill and sacrifice the self is a logical impossibility, “a contradiction akin to a round square.” She suggests that rationally egoistic individuals benefit themselves by helping others, and help society by focusing on self-fulfillment.
If that was the argument The Book was making, though, the random example I read didn’t defend the position especially well. The author quotes a woman who objects to her premise with something like: ‘But i pay lots of money to send my 5 year old to a good school so he can get an education, get a good job and be happy.’ The author’s response is to ask: ‘Do you really do that for him, or do you do it for yourself? Does he want that? Did he ask for it?’
Here are two logical flaws with this example:
1) If we only did things the way our small children wanted us to they’d all be dead, dead, dead.
2) The expensive school strikes me as a poor example. Kids do need some kind of educating to succeed and it’s a parent’s job to help them succeed, but a fancy school isn’t necessary to that goal. How about ‘is keeping all my power tools and poisonous substances locked away in inconvenient places something I do for me?’ No, it’s really annoying for me. I do it to keep my kid safe.
On some level though, one can argue that how we feel is our motivation for everything we ever do, so we’re always, inevitably acting out of self-interest. In that sense, love and self-interest are inseparable: we try to keep the people we care about safe because their suffering causes us pain and we try to make them happy because it gives us pleasure. Perhaps the author went on to argue that there’s no such thing as altruism because we can only act based on how we feel, and whatever feeling we choose to act on, we’re still motivated by how we feel. We may feel that we’ve engaged in right action by doing something that causes us pain but is good for another person or appears to be counter to our own self-interest, but arguably we’ve simply chosen to respect the deepest seated feeling we have about the situation: the need to feel that we did what we believed was right.
All of which brings me to Earl Hickey and his karmic List. In the pilot of My Name is Earl, he wins $100k in the lottery and then loses the ticket when he gets hit by a car, which he decides is karma telling him to be a better person. He makes a list of all the bad things he’s done and resolves to make them right so he can cross them off his list. His understanding of karma is a little vague though, since it comes entirely from hearing Carson Daly mention it on tv while he’s on morphine in his hospital bed.
Earl’s list is a wonderfully transparent example of altruistic behavior motivated by self-interest. Earl decides to do good things for other people so that he won’t be punished by karma. He believes that if he doesn’t keep making amends and crossing things off his list, anything bad that happens to him is instant karmic justice. Like The Secret, he sees his actions and thoughts as a magnet attracting good or bad luck. Over the course of the show, he evolves to a more egoistic state in which he understands that helping other people and helping himself are interconnected, but in the beginning he’s just motivated by the desire to avoid having bad things happen to him. He sees karma as an external force regulating his actions, and he tries to appease it like an angry god.
Unless you’re Earl, it’s probably going overboard to say that it’s all your fault, but there’s something to be said for admitting you did it to get what you wanted.
Earl: Maybe Karma’s behind this whole thing Randy. I mean the guy finally got what he deserved. Maybe Karma just borrowed my fist to give it to him.
– My Name is Earl, “O Karma, Where Art Thou?” Season 1, Episode 12
alex MacFadyen freely admits that he wants what he wants, but secretly suspects he is striving to be a round square.