“Nothing defines humans better than their willingness to do irrational things in the pursuit of phenomenally unlikely payoffs”. Know who said that? Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon strip Dilbert.
I hate Dilbert…
The ancient Greeks believed that universal truths could only be discovered by humans through disciplined logic, and anything else was merely opinion moulded by emotion or sensorial experience. It was the likes of Plato who drew the line in the cultural sands that separated science and art, diverging humankind’s avenues of self-discovery into two lanes running opposite directions: rational and irrational. Art, it was believed, existed to express emotion, the mortal flaw that impeded pure science. For millennia philosophers posited that each of us was eternally engaged in internal civil wars between our two hemispheres, and the struggle influenced your personality, intelligence and behaviour. To act rationally or irrationally was dictated by whichever side at that moment had the upper hand in the battle for dominion over you.
Modern philosophy and psychology has refuted the simplicity of this divide, and say that it is impossible to remove emotion from our understanding of the world. All information we take in must enter through our senses and be processed by our minds. This immediately creates a new, unique version of the same ‘truth’, a version that will always be exclusive to us because of our individual cognitive bias. At this point, we don’t understand why or how or the extent to which emotion influences our every thought – but it could be that irrationality is not illogical, but a force of reasoning we don’t yet understand. The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal explained it with typically beautiful Enlightenment-era lyricism: “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know”.
So like it or not, irrational moods will invade our thoughts at every turn, as if malevolent gremlins were short-circuiting our brain’s fuses and stirring up trouble in the dark, void of sensibility. It happens to us all, with different triggers and different consequences. The better adjusted of us tend to be able to mask our inner raging, but it doesn’t erase it – we are at the mercy of the chemical emissions of our brains.
British author A N Wilson, who has written biographies on Hitler, Tolstoy and Jesus, could probably describe irrationality with some authority. He said, “the fact that logic cannot satisfy us awakens an almost insatiable hunger for the irrational”. To me, that suggests irrationality is the only thing left standing when tempestuous surges of emotion whip up a violent storm in your mind; when conventional logic is too weak to calm the fury – but irrationality offers an alternative course of action, perhaps one more satisfying and irresistible, but forbidden under normal circumstances. Only the mightiest emotions can spark such drama. Love and hate, the inextricably linked polar extremes of emotion, constantly send waves of fear, or altruism, or anger to test the strength of our logic. Under such pressure, rationality can crumble to the ground and momentarily alter how we think, act and re-act.
Love’s enduring mystique owes its existence to irrationality. It was the inspiration that pushed Oscar Wilde’s pen to paper and Van Gogh’s brush to canvas (and later a pair of scissors to his ear), There wouldn’t be such a thing as a music industry if it weren’t for the strange powers wielded by love. Nobody sang the blues because they missed a bus… Hate and anger are different; they at least appear to follow a brusque logic of cause and effect. Every one of us has an exhaustive list of pet peeves, which we feel are justified when it’s someone else’s actions that pulls the trigger and provokes an emotional, ‘irrational’ response.
Well, not always. We don’t love and hate exclusively people. We can, illogically, get disproportionately angry at things like the weather, traffic, insects, TV ads, or jammed printers. But, even when we’re in a calmer state of mind and know this anger is wayward and futile; it doesn’t prevent the same emotional impulses from regrouping and launching another offensive to once again make the irrational seem rational. Shouting at the clouds for raining won’t stop it raining, but it feels good to it.
But, it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. We aren’t robots yet, not as long as we there exists this element within us that challenges cold logic and gifts us individuality, passions, awareness and an experience we can only describe as ‘human’.
Seven Things I Love Irrationally Hating
Strangers walking alongside me
It seems every time I hit the streets, say for a stroll to the park, or a brisk walk to the shops, or even a languid strut to the local malt bar and pool hall – at some point someone will suddenly appear out of nowhere and walk alongside me at precisely the same speed, like the sidekick I never wanted. It’s a fist-clenchingly infuriating situation that only ever occurs when I’m at full stride, going where I need to go. Someone will exit a shop, step off a bus, or simply materialise next to me, and then match me step for step as we both walk along like some sort of estranged couple.
It imposes a very unwanted dilemma: do the unthinkable and break my (SONG) stride to slow down and find some personal space; or accelerate my already-lightning quick walking pace and charge ahead. Obviously my pride vetos option one, so I end up power-walking too quickly for comfort, trying pathetically to make my awkward getaway look completely natural.
Even slow-moving walkers, nuisances they are, can at least be navigated with my superior agility and skilful eye for emerging foot-traffic patterns. It’s actually fun sometimes. But I absolute hate when I’m made to engage in some weird, unspoken walking footrace with some stranger – and it’s usually someone intrinsically weird, like a rambling hobo. It’s so infuriating sometimes that I have to breathe deeply to rein in my urge to shoulder-barge my unwanted walking companion into oncoming traffic.
Keys are like cellular organisms, you begin with one, which becomes two, and then three, four and more and more. Try as you might, you cannot prevent the gradual evolution of your keychain into a huge, jangly cluster of stainless steel. Nor can you prevent the inevitable frustration that comes with each attempt to find the one key you need in amongst the ball-o-plenty.
On principle, I dislike the concept of keys. Think about it, if the world was full of good people, we wouldn’t need to lock up our belongings and install bank-vault security systems in our homes and cars. But no, people are disrespectful, pilfering, selfish jerks and because of them I need to carry and guard a collection of jaggedy metal things to access my own belongings. Fine, but as time ticks away when I stand in the dark outside my door, rifling through 27,000 identical jaggedy metal things to find the correct jaggedy metal thing to open the fucking thing, crankiness rises exponentially. I’m there, I’m home… yet, I’m not. Because my house, my home – the domicile I pay for and dwell in – doesn’t believe it’s really me until I produce the one magical jaggedy metal thing, which looks and feels like all the other jaggedy metal things. It’s next-level frustration. The digital revolution is coming way too slowly here; where are the robot doormen already!? Unacceptable.
Crappy sandwich ‘artists’
Ah yes, the esteemed Royal College of Sandwich Artistry, the famous RCSA, where pupils learn the intricate artful skills associated with stuffing ingredients between two slices of bread, and occasionally toasting it. Unfortunately, the RSCA’s quality learning standards have slipped lately, because there are too many Subway ‘sandwich artists’ who simply can’t (or won’t) do what I want. They never tessellate cheese for maximum coverage; and they interpret my order of ‘extra’ chipotle sauce to be equivalent to the annual rainfall of the Atacama Desert .This is undeniably annoying for anyone, but to me, this is a blood sin. If I pay $12 for a sandwich, I damned well better get a sandwich with a geometrically-efficient covering of cheese and so much chipotle sauce that I’ll need scuba gear to eat it. Anything less and the ‘sandwich artist’ responsible deserves to be personally wedged between two unevenly sliced pieces of bread, covered with one miserly piece of cheese and put into an oven for too long.
Whenever I find myself slumped in a seat, surrounded by work colleagues for one of those unique rituals of modern torture known as ‘meetings’, the only feeling that overpowers the urge to doze off, is pure dread. Dread for the inevitable cringe that I can’t escape. A moment I know is nigh when John Jones*, Junior Vice Assistant Regional Accounts Manager, draws a breath and raises a finger. When that happens, I literally** feel my internal organs wincing as if to brace for a thumping body blow, because I know that very soon I’ll be subjected to the verbal sewage that I absolutely cannot bear; the language they call ‘Managementspeak’.
I get so incensed by words like ‘synergy’ and ‘actionable’ and ‘liaise’, that whenever I hear them I want to stand up and fling myself out the nearest window to freedom. But seeing as careers and employment are kind of an important things, I instead sink, defeated, into my chair and twist my rage silently inward. So, now my strategy to cope in meetings is to fantasise about the productive synergy that is actioned when John Jones’ face liaises with a heavy sticky-tape dispenser.* fictional name. This in no way represents any actual John Joneses of the world. Except the ones who are jerks. In that case – screw you Joneses. You jerks.
People sucking lollies
I’ve seen a lot of things on public transport. I’ve seen fistfights break out between cadaverously thin junkies in bizarre love triangles; I’ve seen a grown man picking his toes and flicking the crusty yellow nails willy-nilly; I’ve seen human shit smeared over seats like a po-mo art exhibition that is way-too-po-mo. I’ve even seen a bare-breasted elderly woman attempt to get on the train against the wishes of the rather embarrassed station staff. But nothing, and I honestly mean NOTHING puts me right off public transport more than being stuck sitting in front of someone and be subjected to the disconcerting, disgusting sounds of their saliva, sucking and slurping away on a lolly of some sort.
Trains are nothing more than prison cells on wheels. Comfort is an afterthought to cramming the maximum amount of sweaty bodies inside a metal tube, and shooting it along rails from point to point while the sardine-people inside stand impassive with blank stares etched on the faces, surrounded by the breath of strangers circulating like a stifling, ghostly presence. I can juuuuust cope with that.
Ironically, my worst experiences arise on the less-crowded occasions, where I have a seat to myself, the journey is silent, and I optimistically believe I might actually have an enjoyable trip reading my book or doing my crossword. Of course I’m never so lucky. Before long, some horrible, knuckle-dragging simpleton will appear, and, when presented with a carriage full of empty seats, plonk themselves in the one directly behind mine. It’s as if they can’t be confortable unless they have my seat to wedge their knees into or my neck to breathe on. That’s bad enough, but then out comes a lolly and the torture begins. Like a starving piglet on a Starburst teat, they destroy my serenity with the unnerving sound of suckling and slurping and squeaking spittle. By all rights, I can’t be mad at them for choosing that seat or eating a lolly… but then again, sometimes I wish they’d choke. Just a little bit.
Anyone entering the bathroom while I’m poopin’
Unless you’re a 90s British pop icon with two first names, public toilets are not usually a place you want to spend much time in. When nature calls and it’s your bowel on the line, a public toilet is the last begrudging resort. With luck, you’ll walk right in and find the place magnificently deserted; naught but a dripping tap and a broken hand-drier. In the solace of soulless silence, you can complete your mission and make your escape without anyone knowing. The good old-fashioned ninja poo. Such fortune is unfortunately rare and most likely you’ll hear the disheartening sound of a door opening, followed by someone else trudging in.
You can’t see them, but my god with every twitching fibre in the organic assembly of living cells you call a body, you bloody well loathe them. At home you have full privacy and can poop with stress-free abandon, but here, from your flimsy little stall you become acutely conscious of someone else’s presence. It’s an uncomfortable experience exacerbated by the knowledge that they themselves are acutely conscious of you, too. For that reason you hate them. It’s obviously quite unfair and hypocritical to hate someone for walking into a public bathroom, but when your pants are around your ankles and you’re engaged in the most vulnerable of human acts (no, not that one, jitterbug), rationality such as this does not factor into the equation.
And so you play… the waiting game…
This is probably more about the symptoms of my early onset grumpy-old-manism than being irrational, but I have a special contempt for attention-seekers – particularly those people who believe their identity is all about the look. I don’t mean being fashion-conscious, or having offbeat taste; I’m talking exclusively about motive here. As in, why would a 22-year-old man carry a Dora the Explorer backpack around? Or why would anyone wear a cape anywhere outside of a comic book or a Phantom of the Opera production? It’s those who deliberately invent some superficial affectation to try and stand out from the crowd – not because they are bold individuals, but because they want people to think that they are. They completely miss the point that quirks and eccentricities are only charming or interesting when they are the by-product of personality, not some eye-catching centrepiece. And it’s never ironic, it’s always gauche.
The same goes for getting tattooed for fashion, or to look tough and menacing – the motive is so self-serving that even if there was some thoughtful meaning behind the ink, it’s spoiled by the owner’s vanity. As the most good-looking and consummately super-excellent person on the planet, I deplore ego and vanity. It’s disappointing to see that the river which swallowed Narcissus is now choked with soggy tiger onesies, lensless glasses, fake British accents and casual bow ties. It surely isn’t too hard to just be who you are and let the rest take care of itself. That isn’t irrational. Wishing a flaming meteor would plummet to earth and flatten the dude who wears a cape, though, might be a little.
Haters gonna hate…
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.’
Lord Alfred Tennyson, In Memorium A.H.H
If sentimentality was measured in weight, there wouldn’t exist scales large enough to gauge Lord Alfred Tennyson’s famous little adage. As with most of those literary excerpts handpicked to become ‘inspirational quotes’, Lord Alfred’s couplet from In Memorium is effortlessly pithy, charming and soothing. To me though, as a supposed source of inspiration, it’s infuriatingly flawed. Really, it’s just crap. I wish it were possible for me to say ‘screw you’ to the laws of quantum mechanics, travel back in time to 1850s London and deliver a precision karate-chop to the back of Tennyson’s bearded neck as he lowered his quill to the the page. Nothing against old Fred, but I’m sure he’d forgive my extreme measures if he knew how carelessly his words are tossed around today.
‘Better to have loved and lost’? Really? Let’s put it into practice then. Imagine you are handed the best ever chocolate-mint gelato cone the world would ever see. I mean, the best. Ever. One lick of this singularly perfect frozen dessert sweeps you off to a euphoric realm of sugar and dancing pixies. It is without question, the greatest thing you’ve ever tasted. You are so engrossed that around you the world slows to a blur and a hum. But, suddenly , a lose paver meets your foot and the sudden jolt bursts your scene back to reality and you watch, powerlessly, as that delicious icy scoop of your hopes and dreams escapes your grips and plummets down to the earth, splattering over an ant’s nest which has a dog turd on it. You stare at the scene in disbelief, completely shattered. Now, apologies for introducing such a morbid thought and I pray this never happens to you, but let me assure you, it hurts. It hurts like a bastard. One second life is but a weightless ascension to choc-minty nirvana and the next, it’s a sickening thud into the dirty ground of broken dreams.
Now, if you had never been handed this gelato, you’d have been as happy and content as before ‘The Incident’. You will have been blissfully oblivious to the agony of being robbed of what instantly became your definition of perfection. You’d suffer no lamentation, no desperate low – because there was no giddy high. The splattered green remains of the gelato covered in ants and dog poo is a much harder sight to bear when you know just how delicious and joyous it was. Without that knowledge, it would be little more than a typical spilled dairy product, which we all know is nothing to cry about.
Am I belittling the deeper wisdom of the phrase with a hypothetical smashed ice cream? Maybe. Well yes. But is lingering heartache and terminally-unrequited yearning a fair admission price to experience the dizzying thrill and passion of love but for only a brief, momentary spell. I genuinely don’t believe it is. No other thought can grip even the sturdiest mind and violently shake it into fragility than that of rumination – the dreaded ‘what if’ –in love or any other avenue of existence. It is of course just another human truth; about consequence, lessons, growth and Scrubs-style inner-monologues. But there’s no point trying to suture a wound with flimsy musings. The contradiction in what many interpret from Tennyson’s words only feeds the helpless, grasping feelings of frustration and injustice. It doesn’t make anything better. It only makes you want to time travel and karate chop history’s greatest wordsmiths.
Then again, perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. I mean – the choc mint may be gone, but consider that in your state of despair you forget that clasped your other hand is a big scoop of vanilla caramel, melting away, unseen and untasted…
Putting my cynicism and sarcasm aside, I truly do love a great inspirational quote as much as I love the combination of chocolate and mint in gelato-form. Great thinkers and writers are trusted teachers to me. I don’t need to have ever met them , but every word they’ve penned or uttered shines with the immeasurable value of their reputation and their proven wisdom. There’s a reason why great philosophers, writers and leaders command such influence over people, even well beyond their deaths. Their mastery of words and their insight into the human experience is timeless. One of my personal favourite phrases is: “The energy of the mind is the essence of life,” said by the brilliant Greek philosopher Aristotle well over two millennia ago. Immortalising those words into life-affirming proverb is the fact they are direct from the mind of Aristotle: the man who studied under Plato, who studied under Socrates – a product of three formidable intellects and equally formidable beards.
However, with Tumblr and Facebook and Pintrest and the like, the realm of inspirational quotations has been hijacked by melodramatic teenagers with Instagram and first-world problems. Search ‘inspirational quote’ on Google Images and you’ll see nothing but self-help drivel scrawled over silhouettes and fake lens flare. Worse yet, you’ll encounter a famous historical quote, but it will be superimposed on a picture of a barefoot woman in a billowy dress standing on black and white train tracks. And spelled incorrectly. And credited to Justin Bieber.
Intelligence and wit that is applied with kind intentions, completely free of arrogance is one of the best qualities you can find in a human being. Little else is as admirable as an altruistic desire to teach, and to learn so as to teach. The only way we can learn today from the greatest teachers who ever lived is to read and understand the words they left behind, especially those that that escape the pages of tomes and stand out on their own accord, throughout ages. Unfortunately though, the idea of these succinct, inspirational quotes is now the domain of tumblr-keeping teens whose biggest crisis in life was that harrowing time their BFF didn’t reply to a text for like, two whole hours. The important thoughts and works from the likes of Goethe, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Wilde, Nietzsche, Twain and so many others have been sucked into this world that spins on an axis of melodrama and lack of self-awareness. I wince at the thought that thanks to this online phenomenon, out there somewhere, someone has interpreted the wise words of Socrates – ‘Know thyself’ to mean ‘I like holes in my stockings becoz my style is like, soooooooooo individual.’ How cruelly ironic.
So why does ‘better to have loved and lost’ really infuriate me? It’s not Tennyson who deserves a karate chop, not at all. It’s those who repeat the phrase without understanding its true meaning (it was a lengthy meditation on mortality and hope following the death of a dear friend) and in doing so, push it closer towards superficiality, robbing the author of the respect it deserves. Thankfully, even the weighty tribulations of teenage life cannot weaken the poignancy of timeless wisdom. I’m frustrated because it’s disappointing to see great historical works misunderstood because so few in this online generation pause for reflection. These words are not meant to be ‘catchy’. They’re not meant to be photoshopped onto an overexposed picture of a tyre-swing, nor scrawled on a post-it note. They should exist only in your mind and heart, an arm’s length away for when that time comes when you really do need a little comfort or inspiration in your lives, wherever you are. If, as Aristotle said, the essence of life is an energetic mind, then feed it with the wisdom of others and invigorating ideas, think about the words, know them – don’t waste them in a rush to post up on your Facebook wall.
Here are some ‘inspirational quotes’ I collected in a quick Google Image sweep. I learned a couple of things. One, lame metaphors and whimsical (and completely irrelevant) photos are a match made in heaven; and two, some people really should have kept to their day jobs and left the aphorisms to the pros.