Around the time of Thalfest I began to be obsessed with the question of why it’s important to be cool. And I finally realized: the opposite of cool is petty, and pettiness is the leading symptom of self-pity. So the desire to be around cool people is the desire to be around people who aren’t constantly living out their self-pity through petty acts of vengeance.
To understand why self-pity is more than a mere annoyance, we have to build up some theory.
Aeoli: Material needs and status needs explain the cycles of history. At first people do what works because this is necessary just to feed everyone. You pay your workers as much as you can based on the work actually getting done (This is what Henry Ford said to do). Eventually everyone is prosperous enough that status becomes the main drive; and status is relative. Now you want to pay people as little as possible because that is what is economically best for you in that situation.
As absolute needs for existence become post-scarce and dwindle in importance, post-material relative status needs predominate our revealed preferences. Since homo sapiens was R-selected for millions of years in Africa, we’ve also got a tendency to mistake our relative prosperity for absolute prosperity (having been relatively unacquainted with the latter). If the neighbor breaks my window, and I break his in return, I call this “getting even”. But we’re only “even” in relative terms–in absolute terms we’re both down a window and indebted to each other for the price of a window. If I get a case of religion and go around making amends to everyone I’ve wronged in my life then one of my stops is going to be my neighbor’s, where I’m going to apologize and buy him a new window. Debts may cancel in money but in material reality two absolute losses don’t make a right.
We’ve also evolved a tendency to weight negative emotions about three times higher than positive emotions, and coupled with the social reciprocity instinct this emerges as a nasty biomoralism where we overestimate the wrongs done to us and underestimate the wrongs we do to others. This means that human society is characterized by a self-fulfilling sense of societal injustice, where everyone acts out their sense of being mistreated through petty acts of mistreating everyone else as the composite Other. This results in the “cold war of all against all” which was the thesis of my post On Humans. Primitive societies are thus characterized by feuds based on these escalations of petty wrongs into existential tribal conflicts.
Self-pity is a short-term emotional defense mechanism to this worldwide culture of injustice, where people internalize the following central conceit:
“I don’t deserve kindness.”
“I deserved better than I was treated.”
The only way to avoid this conceit entirely in a sinful world is to be born lucky somehow, so that on average people treated you three times better than normal because you were extremely attractive, strong, smart, or rich. These people can become cool without even trying. Everyone else has to either escape self-pity or dwell in it forever. The trick is to flip the former statement with a different self-fulfilling sense.
The first step is to recognize that your sense of suffering gives you insight into the needs of other people who have also have a sense of suffering. “Only those who have suffered know how to be kind to others.” Therefore, without suffering, there can be no real empathy or human connection, only a psychopathic, academic understanding as if other people’s experiences were, to you, a Chinese room thought experiment. The difference between a p-zombie and a human being is in the eye of the beholder.
The second step requires a leap of faith: a decision to be as kind as possible to others regardless of whether they deserve it, due to some inarticulate epiphany, possibly religious. This is the “martyr complex” stage of recovery, a type of “conversion of the sick soul” (ref: William James), and lots of people get stuck here. If a person merely intends to be kind without feeling they deserve kindness too, then their efforts will fall apart for lack of reciprocation and they’ll end up trying to extract payment by playing the eternal victim.
The third step is when, having exerted oneself to unreasonable acts of kindness enough times without reciprocation, a person finally internalizes they deserve kindness in return. This resolves the central conceit by flipping the first statement to “I deserve kindness” and the curse is broken. The mentally healthy person can finally turn their sympathy inward and treat themselves with the kindness they now understand how to produce and also feel they deserve. This allows them to be charitable in truth out of their overflow of their healthy fulfillment, having cut free the dragging anchor of martyrdom.
I believe this is a psychological consequence of following Jesus’ teaching:
38You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’i 39But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well; 41and if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’j 44But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,k 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?
48Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
Christianity is supposed to shortcut the psychological process because the idea of God loving you so much that he sent his son to be crucified is a bit overwhelming, and produces the kindnesses of step two through reciprocity.
Here’s more on this mindset from Paul:
14Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but enjoy the company of the lowly. Do not be conceited.
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Carefully consider what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible on your part, live at peace with everyone.
19Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord.”a
20On the contrary,
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him a drink.
For in so doing,
you will heap burning coals on his head.”b
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Please note the criticisms of radical nonjudgmentalism are still sound, so being kind doesn’t mean hiring a pedophile to babysit your kids on the off chance he’s reformed, because he needs the money. If you have trouble with situational judgments of priority, here’s the rule of thumb: Take care of your dependents first (children, flock, constituents, etc.) then be as kind to others as you can afford. And remember kind words don’t cost you anything.