Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
March 2010 - Volume 10, No. 3
Doing Something Stupid
- and then continuing to do it! A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of an elderly friend. It was a February Saturday afternoon, the weather was overcast, in the mid-20s, with a light wind. The priest announced that the interment of her ashes would take place following the service in the church’s memorial garden, just outside a side door - and it would take only five to ten minutes. So I decided not to retrieve my winter coat and went outside with just a sport jacket. Within two minutes I knew I should have retrieved my coat. But did I go back inside to get it? No.
It would have only taken three minutes, perhaps four, and I was definitely aware the bone-chilling wind was not friendly to my body. In my head I could even hear voices of a number of friends screaming at me.
Subsequently I experienced two weeks of a difficult Winter cold, a bothersome bronchial cough, the necessary cancellation of some client sessions, a visit to my physician, my first antibiotics in a half dozen years, regular raids on my office Kleenex supply, and some lengthy rumination on the question of why, when we find ourselves doing something stupid, we would keep on doing it!
I also realized I was, to some extent, in the company of those folks in my office who plead with their partners with the words, “Why! Why would you do something so stupid, when you knew that (you fill in the blanks here)?”
Both men and women in dozens, nay hundreds, of situations, give voice to the words “I know it was stupid, but.…“ Yes there are some truly stupid people around, but I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the rest of us, the normal and basically intelligent folks who within the course of our life journey all have a “stupid things” reservoir.
To extend the consideration, I whimsically wonder if when each of us faces that after-death judgment moment, we will be asked “what did you do that was stupid?” And if by chance we would answer “nothing” - we would be consigned to an unpleasant eternity either as gross liars or somebody who violated our basic being-human life contract.
It seems that the Creator built into each of the species the caveat that if they did stupid things, they would get wiped out. But the human species apparently lives by a different code. Yes, we do lots of stupid things, but we just keep on propagating (which, by the way, is a major though unspoken element of our national health care conversation). Prejudice tells us that the stupid (if they make it to fertility age) are exceedingly fertile.
So, is doing stupid things a genetic flaw or part of our genius?
Parents wrestle with this. We try to teach our children to not ‘do something stupid’ and yet lose hours of sleep wondering if they are (and they probably are). In the rest of the animal world, parents’ worry (if they worry) is only that someone higher in the natural food chain would eat their kid. We parents know that “stupid things” can be lethal, or at least painful, illegal, costly, embarrassing or otherwise messy.
An old Portuguese proverb goes “God says, take what you want, and then pay for it.” (If you’re into Karmic thinking, this may involve the use of credit cards.) And many of us seem willing to pay - even though it seems to be a “price determined after purchase” contract.
Now I’m not yet of an age when a chill can be lethal, though that time isn’t that far ahead of me either. So I (hopefully) still have some breathing room.
For men especially, “stupid” can come as a result of pride. Nobody can tell me what I can and can’t do! I’ll be the master of my own fate. I did recognize a bit of that macho that afternoon in the church memorial garden. But then what’s to prevent me from claiming “so what’s wrong with some pride?”
Let’s assume that each of us has choices between safe and daring. And since I don’t want to always live on just the safe side, I’ll sometimes opt for the greater adventure of the daring spectrum. It makes me feel more alive. And it seems when we face death, we feel most alive. So to risk is to be alive. When it comes to winning and losing, winning is definitely more exciting. We’ll risk in order to win. That’s a particularly human trait, at least for the masculine.
There are others, though difficult for many of us to understand, who apparently don’t have the choice between winning or losing, but only between losing now, or losing later. They know they will lose, so if they have a choice, it’s simply about how. This is a different tempting of fate, where “doing something stupid” can have an additional heroic aspect.
Consider a man whose wife has left him, after much marital turmoil. I’ll then ask him, “how long have you known she’d leave you?” He’ll often answer “I’ve always known.” His choice (from deep within) didn’t involve keeping the marriage, but only how long he could prolong its dissolution. So for him, “doing something stupid” can have a different meaning or quality.
And so that cold afternoon, I stood with my “stupid” in the company of much humanity. I knew the smart, and easily accomplished, move would have been to go get my coat. I also knew deep within that there was a lot more going on in my apparent tempting of fate.
If I were in the same situation again, would I do the same thing? From my current perspective of having suffered that cold, I’d probably opt for getting my coat. I’d like to think it’s of course what I’d do. But don’t hold me to that. There’s also something remarkably human, and perhaps even heroic, in “doing something stupid” and then choosing to keep on doing it. Even God seems to understand. He somehow built it into the system. And when I was feeling that chill, and deciding to not do anything about it, I felt very much alive.
Don’t worry, I’m not sharing this with your kids here. But I am sharing it with you.
It was still a really stupid thing I did. And we’re supposed to lean from our mistakes. Any 5th grade student of psychology knows that.
Pay attention, Bill!
timely - Sun Magazine
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