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It pains me to tell you this…
2nd Jun


It pains me to tell you this…

(about trash, enlightenment, choice, career advice, the encouragement of inaction, and responsibility)

Early on an unexpectedly busy April morning my dog and I hurriedly left home for our morning walk, and when we were well inside Goodale Park, as usual, she squatted.  I reached into my jacket, and suddenly realized that in my haste I had forgotten to stuff bags in my pocket.

I suppose I could have just continued walking (as many people obviously do), but the virtues of appropriate social behavior had long ago been revealed to me and ingrained in me by my parents, and I’m helpless to fight it at this point (after an enlightenment, it is difficult to move backwards).  At the top of my possible “appropriate options” list was grabbing a bag from the nearby dispenser on the hill, but I could easily see that it was empty. As I set off in search of a bag-substitute, I quickly turned to a familiar source: the trash cans.

I walked west to the cans near the picnic tables by the tennis courts.  I peered inside a couple of them and soon found an almost-empty Styrofoam carryout container.  I dumped out the remains of some Tandoori Chicken, and then tore the empty container in half along the hinge in order to create a makeshift shovel and collection bin.  Then I returned to my dog’s pile (which I had marked in the pre-dawn dimness with two tall sticks), gently launched the debris with one corner of the foam lid into the waiting maw of the other section, and disposed of it.

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Why did I go to all that trouble?  I feel that this is beyond mere “appropriate social behavior”.  It seems clear to me that this was about pain.  The self-conscious pain of leaving dog poop in the park was greater than the pain of looking for a solution, and greater than the pain of diving into a trash can for an improvised bag-replacement.  This “pain management” is ubiquitous in my life.  My natural inclination is to choose whatever causes me the least overall discomfort.  I believe that this is true for you, too.

This is not necessarily about being drawn to what is easiest; as you can see from the previous example, the least amount of work doesn’t necessarily lead to the least pain.  More evidence of this fact lies on the other side of the alley behind our house.  The rental unit’s yard next to the street gets filled with weeds, and it bugs me.  I have tried to “let it go” (as this should be the easy, expedient thing to do), but it clearly causes no pain for the landlord and the renters, so junk foliage continues to grow, and I eventually reach the point where I can’t stand it, and I weed and trim it “for them”.  It’s none of my business, and it’s their property, but my pain moves me to act.

Another example is a nearby construction debris roll-off container that had been overflowing for months at an apparently abandoned condo renovation project.  The gurgling mountain of trash caused minimal pain for the Dublin-based owners/contractors until the city cited them with a code violation, which produced a sufficient level of pain to initiate a response; it was emptied the next day.

But taking action in order to avoid pain is not the norm.  We usually prefer inaction, because the least work usually does seem to lead to the least pain, in the short term. The pain of taking steps to resolve a problem often seems like more trouble than it’s worth, even when it is rational, sensible, or obvious that we would want the eventual result.

For example, university alumni regularly talk with me about how to get a new job, or how to start a new career.  They are dissatisfied with their current jobs, but after discussing their career aspirations and agreeing on a solution, I often find that they are conflicted when faced with these very clear and obvious steps toward resolving their situations. The perceived pain of discerning their career direction, networking, writing cover letters, or practicing interviewing skills suddenly becomes enormous and overwhelming, and the original “job dissatisfaction” pain is called into question. Their desire to get out of this job and into a different one (which seemed so obvious just moments before) seems less clear to them now.  The original pain is ameliorated as it is placed side by side with this new pain.  They would rather do nothing.

Recent graduates exhibit the same behavior when they find that looking for a job is painful.  And moving back into their familiar room at home with mom and dad, although not an ideal choice, seems more than palatable when faced with the alternative pain of the job search.  They would rather do nothing, too.  They like the idea of having a job and a place of their own, but on a moment-by-moment basis, doing nothing is often much more appealing than doing something.

Most of us would rather sit around passively than take steps that would ultimately, long-term, lead to greater happiness.  A job search, a house project, finding a new girlfriend or boyfriend, or even buying an umbrella are all examples of this passivity.  I don’t buy umbrellas when it is sunny, and why would I?  I’m not experiencing pain that would motivate me, even though I might regret it later when I’m caught in the rain without one.

Ironically, this is good news.  If you are so satisfied with your job, or house, or partner that you can’t bring yourself to explore alternatives, then life must not be so bad.  In general, if the pain becomes great enough, you will act.  You will do something.  When an angry black bear lumbers into camp, even the laziest person will leap into action.

But really, we all hope for easy resolution.  These painful situations all involve the vague hope that something will happen “to you” – that a friend will invite you to accept a thrilling (or easy, or high-paying) job, that the clogged drain will loosen itself, that the “right person” will arrive at your front door where you will fall instantly and deeply in love with each other, or that a neighbor will magically appear in the park to clean up the dog debris.  This form of belief is encouraged in us from a very early age through (among other sources) the perfect matchmaking of fairy tales.

“Doing nothing”, or inaction, is sometimes referred to as “choosing not to decide”, and Rush (not that one) made this famous with Neil Peart’s lyrics from Freewill: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”.  This may be comforting to the passive “decision-makers” of the world who believe this to be profound, but instead of a statement about choice, it is about the absence of a choice.  Among the problems with this statement is the attribution of the choice to “you”.  If you choose not to decide, the universe will actually make the choice. If you choose not to decide, “choice” still exists; it’s just not yours.

Accepting responsibility can be difficult, and the temptation to abdicate is strong.  I forget, perhaps, that my choice was actually made earlier, when I decided to bring my dog to the park.



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