Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Always Go to the Funeral"

It’s a moral lesson well worth learning. Attorney DeirdreSullivan learned it from her father when she was sixteen and her fifth grade teacher died. She wrote about it a long time ago. Her brief column still resonates.

Her father’s lesson: “always go to the funeral.”

Sullivan understood it well:

"Always go to the funeral" means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don't really have to and I definitely don't want to. I'm talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex's uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil. It's hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

In going to funerals, I've come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life's inevitable, occasional calamity.

Note well, Sullivan does not define her moral being in terms of a cosmic battle of good versus evil. She does not define it in political or ideological terms, or in her adherence to a cause. She does not try to rationalize bad behavior by saying that her powerful emotions pushed her in another direction.

She sees her moral being in small gestures, in rituals that that she performs in order to be there for others.

The therapy culture bemoans everyone’s pervasive narcissism. And yet, by teaching people to explore their and everyone else’s feelings it obscures the importance of following rules and performing rituals. You can say what you will about empathy, but Sullivan is not acting from empathy. She is doing the right thing, regardless of how she feels.

Your moral being is based on what you do for other people, even, and especially when you do not feel like doing it.

You can take this lesson anywhere. It will always serve you well.


Sam L. said...

Sometime the only thing you can do is be there when someone may need others' presence. A show of solidarity, if you will. When I was in the service, and our lead crews were getting the thrice-over from higher headquarters, all we could do was be there waiting for their return, to celebrate or commiserate.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Your moral being is based on what you do for other people, even, and especially when you do not feel like doing it.

A very good point, and think this is called duty or "Social responsibility."

The weakness of this model isn't the conclusion but the process. The question is how do you handle "doing things for other people when you don't feel like don't it."

Part of my answer is in evaluation before and after, even if you allow no possibility to say no. So you can first acknowledge "I don't want to do this" because that gives voice to your resistance and your "inner parent" can override that and say "do it anyway". And then after doing what duty calls, you can ask what was lost in following duty, and what was gained, and evaluate that balance.

At least that process works when resistance is merely laziness. Like any "good habit", often starting, like just getting out the door to get some exercise, that's the real battle, and once you've started, then you find you have more energy than you thought, and its okay.

But the other side there's a potential for compulsion. Perhaps like a parent who thinks it is her duty to always meet the immediate needs of her infant or toddler, so goes to him every time he cries, and never allow him a chance to comfort himself to sleep. So in that case, social duty is ALIGNED with feelings, so such a parent needs a counter voice, and she can say "I want to do this" and her inner parent can say "Just listen and hold this tense feeling for another 2 minutes and see if he calms on his own."

And that's similar to the problem of customer support. Probably 90% of engineer clients will learn as much on their own before they ask for help, so it ends up 10% of clients use 90% of our customer support time. We discovered there's a sort of "foot in the door" problem, where once a client has your attention for one problem, he'll keep asking more questions, and especially with email.

So some engineers in support duties said their policy is to wait half a day on further questions, and then ask "Did you figure out this problem?" And most clients either say yes, or don't bother replying at all, perhaps because it really wasn't that important to them. I thought that was brilliant, although I can see how it can also be lazy and selfish, so some self-evaluation is still needed to know if you're "punishing" your annoying clients, or are trying to teach them restraint on things they can figure out on their own.

So yes, you should go to the funeral, but no, you don't have to stay for the reception, or whatever "middle ground" you want to negotiate with yourself.

Ares Olympus said...

I recall a related story of social duty about a local sports hero Kirby Puckett, who died young, just about 10 years ago.

Kirby Puckett was not only a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame: he was also a member of something called the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. But his mistress told SI that his good deeds were a sham. She recalled an incident when Puckett had to leave for the hospital to visit a sick child. "You get to make the kid's day, that must make you feel good," she said.
"I don't give a shit," he replied. "It's just another kid who is sick."

The story shows a misperception about the nature of giving, saying "his good deeds were a sham" because Kirby was moody and apparently took out his resentment on his mistress. (And she probably had her own resentment for merely being a mistress, and so she felt it was her "duty" to only be positive and encouraging, while she actually was resentful enough to eventually share this story, apparently as an effort to show we shouldn't idolize him too easily like she did at the start.)

So by this childish logic, he wasn't a real 'good guy', he just pretended to be good. In fact, I'd imagine more mature people would judge him for having a mistress while this story shows his common humanity in not always being able to live up to the positive public figure that he tried to project.

We might be able to judge Kirby's poor behavior from more information, like if we found he was rude or cruel to the sick children, but here the story shows only the childishness of his mistress, her imagined belief that heroes never have days and say things they shouldn't.

But I think to me it shows why we have to "tend our feelings", like resentment, given them a legitimate voice even without necessary action, so they don't accumulate and make us do or say things we shouldn't in our weaker moments.