Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Seeking Dr. Pangloss

It never ceases to amaze me how one of the strongest--and, actually, one of the most positive--of human characteristics is our inherent assumption that things should be better than they are. The negative side of that noble trait is that we are as a result constantly being hurt, angered, and frustrated when confronted by reality.

In 1759, Fran├žois-Marie Arouet Voltaire wrote a little book called "Candide," in which the stalwart young protagonist is beset by an endless string of disasters, guided by his revered teacher, Dr. Pangloss, an utterly incorrigible optimist who assures Candide, with each successive disaster, that no matter how horrific things may be, "we are living in the best of all possible worlds." And Candide believes him!

I've spoken here before about my--and I am far from being alone--deep concern that human society is increasingly less humane: less about human beings as individuals than about making money and the search for power. It is ever-more-difficult to maintain a positive attitude when confronted with the mounting evidence to support this concern.

There is absolutely nothing worse than being made aware, often harshly, that we are utterly powerless to change, or even effect, our own destinies. It is little wonder that so many people turn their frustration into violence, and that so very many innocent people are subsequently made to suffer for things over which they have no control.

We are not only inundated with evidence or our own impotence, but consistently have our noses rubbed in it. If we are not directly exposed to blatant greed and injustice on any given day, there's ample proof of it all around us. I received two emails this morning from my publisher telling me how she had just gotten a 50-inch plasma TV from this wonderful site, giving the link and encouraging me to go to it. And while it was obviously and blatantly bullshit, the realization that not only had someone stolen her identity for this spurious and specious crap, but that people, knowing and trusting her, might actually be suckered into going to the site infuriated me. And she is absolutely powerless to do anything about it! ANYTHING!! The fact that people do this to one another without one single shred of conscience pushes me to the brink of despair. Yet the perpetrators of this outrage can rest in the smug certainty that they can do whatever they want to do to whomever they choose to do it, and the victim is utterly powerless.

This unconscionable disregard for other people is not limited to faceless spammers or corporations. I remember when I was working part time at a supermarket in northern Wisconsin. We closed at 9 p.m. and one evening a woman and her husband came in about six minutes before closing and began shopping. The woman took her time going up and down each aisle. At five 'til nine, an announcement was made over the loudspeakers that the store would be closing in five minutes. The woman was unfazed, and continued her casual browsing. At nine, it was announced that the store was now closed, and for any shoppers to please bring their carts to the checkout immediately. She totally ignored it. Finally, at about ten after nine, as she reached the end of an aisle closest to where I was waiting at the register with lava flowing out of my ears, she merely began to head up the next aisle. Her husband said: "They're closed. We're keeping all these people from going home." She merely looked at him and said casually, "I don't care."

Were it me, I would have simply locked up my register and gone home (or, preferably, gone over and shoved her cart up her ass), but the manager wouldn't allow it. (What, and lose $10 in sales AND alienate a valued customer we had never seen before and would most likely never see again?)

This woman was not unique, and even faced with absolutely unforgivable behavior such as hers, we overlook it when there is a dollar to be made.

Dr. Pangloss, I fear, was right, but with a bitter twist: we live in the best of all worlds possible to us until we can bring ourselves to create any better.

Until then, we are sheep, and will continue to meekly tolerate the intolerable simply because we do not have the guts/courage/will to speak and act in protest of injustice. Until and unless we not only realize that logic and human decency far outweigh greed but act upon that realization, we will suffer the consequences.

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