Do You Make a Moral Issue Out of Being Inconvenienced?

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I think I inherited it from my Father’s side. Nothing makes me lose my mind more than when I’m walking through the mall and somebody steps out of a store right in front of me and walks slowly. Why didn’t they look? I would have looked. I do look.

It might only take less than two seconds for me to skirt around and resume my regular mall-cruising speed, but that’s enough time to make my eyes harden and my teeth clench. It’s enough for my mind to start getting self-righteous.

If I’m not careful, I end up in an internal dialogue about certain basic courtesies people should uphold in public, or maybe a half-daydream about how the oblivious lady in front of me must live a life of total obliviousness, wandering into busy streets or onto active construction sites, all without a clue that she may be affecting people’s lives with her deplorable lack of awareness. In either case, I end up feeling agitated, and slightly better than her.

The basis of my internal rant always seems to surround how people ought to behave in public. In other words, I make a moral issue out of it.

In a situation like that, my distress seems to be that I am simply yearning for a world in which people don’t stand in the way on sidewalks or step out in front of people at the mall. But it’s really a clever self-deception; what I am really yearning for in those moments is a slightly easier version of my present moment — one in which there is nothing in my way.

Though I’m not always aware of it, my own personal inconvenience is what I’m really railing against, not some worldwide epidemic of rudeness. My objection is purely selfish, under the guise of a noble appeal for a better world. But I’m not really looking for a better world, only a moment that contains no difficulty for me — no oversight I must excuse, no mistake I must forgive.

If nobody had been in my way, I probably wouldn’t have had a reason to contemplate the ethics of proper mall-walking. If I saw the same thing happen to someone else, it wouldn’t seem nearly as important. Certainly not enough to get angry about.

Morality as a tool for dodging responsibility

I think this happens often. We use morality to justify our resentment of what happens to us.

Most people, when they are inconvenienced, will feel at least a bit of resentment, most of the time. It isn’t always toward a person. You can hate the “stupid” attic beam when you hit your head on it, or the stupid stair when you stub your toe on it. You can resent a situation.

But when other people enter the picture, when a person can somehow be blamed for something unpleasant we experience, our resentment seems to take on a heightened momentum. It is much easier to resent a person than a situation, (especially a stranger) because we can make moral arguments for why this person should have (or should not have) done this or that.

You see, a moral argument finally gives us what we hapless human beings have always wanted: a way of arguing with what is.

Morality is the only way we can rationalize arguing with reality itself — it is the only way we can look at reality and say, “this shouldn’t be!” and believe that we are right. We can’t reasonably say “It is wrong that it’s raining!” but we can (and often do say) “He shouldn’t have done that.” Moralizing is an extremely common reaction to being inconvenienced. I do it all the time, and didn’t realize it most of my life.

We usually (though not always) recognize the absurdity in blaming animals, inanimate objects, or the weather for the annoyances they cause us. Shit happens, and most reasonable people can accept that. But somehow, if we can in any way pin the inconveniences in our lives on a failing of another human being, we are quick to do it.

When I argue to myself that “He shouldn’t have done that,” I’m really just saying “It’s his fault that I’m pissed off right now.” That way, I don’t have to be responsible for my state of mind. I can pin my cranky reaction on somebody else’s shoddy morals, instead of my shoddy skills for dealing with inconvenience and disappointment. That way I don’t have any responsibilities in the situation.

What do you do when inconvenience strikes?

When inconvenience strikes, the behavior of others is a tempting target for resentment, because we can always make an argument that humans have moral responsibilities, and therefore our annoyance is justified, and we are not responsible for it.

But annoyance is never anything but a dysfunctional relationship between you and what you experience. Refusing to take responsibility for your reaction to the present moment is what keeps it bad, and morality is the primary tool most people use for justifying that shirking of responsibility.

It’s no secret that quality of life is all about how you come to terms with the present moment, and resentment is a woefully unskillful way to do that. It makes for a rotten moment that stays rotten, as you wait for somebody else’s moral sense to kick in and fix it for you.

Every time I notice I’m resentful of someone else, there is always some moral argument I’m trying to make for why this shouldn’t be happening to me. Every moral accusation takes the form of “He/she/they/people shouldn’t do that.” The unstated reason they shouldn’t is that it makes life a little harder for me. If it makes my life harder, I find a way to suggest to myself that it is immoral. It’s a terrible habit I have, and you probably have it too.

The plane isn’t ready for boarding yet, and I have a connection to make. “How hard is it to make a plane take off on time?”

Someone pushes their cart slowly down the middle of the cereal aisle. “I always walk to the side of aisles so people can get by.”

The greater the inconvenience to me, the more serious their moral violation becomes in my mind. When I had to sprint through the enormous Hong Kong airport to catch my connection, I was positively furious that the first plane had been late and that they didn’t leave me enough time to make the connection. I caught the plane with what ended up being plenty of time, boiling in my seat over how much of an atrocity it was that they (the flight-schedule-makers?) had done this to me.

Had I not had a tight connection to make, it would have only cost me the same fifteen minutes of standing in line at the gate — no big deal at all. But because it ended up really stressing me out, I framed it in my mind as a horrendous moral oversight on their part. How could they do this to me?! What kind of people are they?!

We use morality to justify our resentment against people all the time. It is compelling for us to do so because then we don’t have to take responsiblity for the problems we find ourselves experiencing. There is nearly always somebody whom you can finger as having created this problem in your life, even if it’s just some vague, unseen “them.” The people who made the stupid cheap packaging you can’t get open. The guy in front of you who is driving the speed limit, when you want to go 10 over. What an asshole.

Now don’t get me wrong. I wish people wouldn’t leave their shopping carts in the middle of the aisle either. I never do, and I do think the world would be a better place if nobody did. But that isn’t the world I live in, and in the moments that I do encounter those inconveniences, my quality of life always comes down to what I do. What “they” should have done differently is irrelevant.

How you respond to your moments is up to you, and the moral argument reaction is a dumb one. Who cares if I can assemble a graduate-level dissertation about why it is ethically reprehensible to park diagonally across two stalls? It will not improve the quality of my moment. Forgiveness will. Patience will. Gratitude will.

What you’re really saying when you make an internal moral argument is this: “This moment should be a different one. A better, easier one. And it’s that guy’s fault.”

All the moral approach does is gives you a little buzz of self-righteousness, and lets you off the hook for taking responsibility for your state of mind.

In Freakonomics, the authors define morality as “How we’d like the world to work.” I think they’re right on the money.


Photo by Violentz

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Jayadeep Purushothaman March 24, 2013 at 10:29 pm

In this part of the world(India) there is this belief that others jealousy about some of our stuff or well being could cause doom for you. So you tend to hide things so that they don’t see it or know about it. And when things go wrong you blame others. They call it “drishti” in local lingo. For a loong time, I too believed in it till it dawned on me that this is the perfect method to shift blame on others !

Found your blog just now – via MMM. Love the unconventional thoughts here!

Verna May 25, 2013 at 3:05 am

Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
The words in your post seem to be running off the screen in Safari.

I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know.

The design and style look great though! Hope you get the issue fixed soon.

mick handyside May 30, 2013 at 10:07 pm

awesome post! i’ve often moralized and been furious with ‘them’. the guy who cut me off, jumped ahead in the queue etc. thanks for your words!

Sensate August 14, 2013 at 9:09 pm

David, you are right in terms of your own quality of life – nothing is solved by you being angry at someone you perceive to be oblivious or inconsiderate. However, that impulse often does bear fruit. In countries where one’s own agency is deprecated, the traffic is horrendous; pedestrians are utterly heedless, and everything takes at least twice as long as it does here. I’m not saying the spirit of moral opprobium cannot be taken to extremes, or isn’t used to lightning rod individuals’ own failings, but the idea that one *might* be taken to task for failing to uphold civic virtue keeps a lot of bad behavior from happening. And that begins with the spark of your impulse to condemn.

Kari August 30, 2013 at 1:45 am

I just have to say this is such a well constructed piece that I’ve found myself reading and re-reading it often since the first time I stumbled across it over a year ago. Any time I’m feeling overly frustrated or tense, I remind myself of this blog and how important it is to take a deep breath and not let others’ moral issues affect my own well-being. It truly is so simple to allow yourself to be happy all of the time if you are unaffected by poor choices of others; and in turn makes it easier to be aware of how your own actions can impact others. So thank you for this great essay!

John Robinson August 30, 2013 at 7:28 am

After the tens of seconds skimming this article, I want to (not so seriously) suggest the life changing song “World’s on Heroine” by “All.” Identifying both the displeasure of being inconvenienced by “too many lazy morons in my way” and the contradictory fulfilment by “Going for All”, these revolutionaries identify ups and downs of a lazy consumer culture. “I’m A Coffee Guy In A Stoner Place” again reiterates their frustration, noting the difficult-to-cope times in our lives as you have “And The World Keeps Turning At A Turtles Pace.”

shelley November 6, 2013 at 10:41 am

This is such a good and timeless article. I saw the title and thought “Guilty as charged”. What helps me is a phrase that popped up in my mind one day: Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy load. The days that I can keep that uppermost in my mind are the days I don’t moralize about others’ inconsiderate behavior. The days I forget…well, I walk around with a cloud over my head, of my own making.

One thing I like about this blog is David’s ability and willingness to be rigorously honest with himself.

Natas December 8, 2013 at 4:35 pm

I’m looking at it this way… it’s the kind of crap that would make a good stand-up rant. “do you notice that people exit shops in the mall just when you pass by?”. or a great movie scene… guy’s cart runs into someone else’s and guy starts a fight. as a matter of fact there was a character of this kind in Trainspotting, funny one.
not saying that personal development, growth or whatever is BS, but I think there’s more to life than this “let go” thing. imagine a world where everyone is at peace with oneself. kinda boring, right?

Gastrointestinal surgeon in dubai June 9, 2014 at 3:55 am

That’s exactly it… it’s an inane feeling of right which keeps us connected to fake, problem-free editions of our minutes.

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