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October 2015

metal heart in hands

Last week at the supermarket, I felt a bit greedy when I noticed I was taking all the good brussels sprouts. Most of them had yellow, wilted outer leaves, which would have to be peeled off, and some had tiny black dots that were either rot or the entrances to bug-tunnels.

But a few dozen were almost pristine, and they were all in my bag. It occurred to me that if I wanted to treat others as myself, I should take no better than an average group of sprouts.

I reassured myself that it was perfectly normal to take the best available specimens in the produce department. In many areas of civilized life, we’re expected to aim for fairness or better. We’re supposed to let others enter doors before ourselves, and never eat a larger-than-equal share of the pizza, at least until grandma insists that she only wants half a piece and that you can go ahead.

But the modern produce department is more like the prehistoric savannah than Grandma’s house. The rule is to take all you want and all you can get, even though you are sometimes the victim of that policy, and even though we know society would be better if we thought about the people coming after us to the feeding bowl. Mother Nature supports this system, however—evolution would be nowhere without competition. And competition means feeling no shame about serving yourself—and maybe your friends and relatives—the best brussels sprouts you can get your hands on.

This is the sort of philosophical reflection I have about twenty times a day. So I didn’t think of it again until I read an article from the Guardian about a woman named Julia Wise, who had an unusual dilemma. She believed everyone’s well-being was equally important, and so it wasn’t right to care more for herself than for anybody else.

At first, that doesn’t seem unusual at all. It’s really just a rigorous application of the golden rule, or something like it—don’t put yourself before others—a maxim which many people think is just common human decency.

In reality, it’s not common at all. Almost nobody lives like that. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about spending fifteen dollars on wine, even when we know it could have protected a dozen kids from polio. We routinely pass up chances to alleviate great suffering for some real person somewhere, in order to pleasure ourselves in some small way.

Apparently, Julia did not experience this normal cognitive dissonance. It seemed wrong to her to pursue her own luxuries at the expense of others’ necessities, and so from an early age she knew she was morally obligated to spend much of her life helping others.

She and her husband decided they could live on half of his salary, and donate the other half (and the entirety of Julia’s salary) to the best charitable causes they could find. Still, they always wondered if they could do more. Regardless of how much they were already giving, five dollars spent on an unnecessary indulgence still meant someone would suffer needlessly.  Read More

Post image for Your Life is Always Just Beginning

Famously, The Sopranos ended in a way that infuriated a lot of fans. At an apparently critical moment in the story, the audio and video cut to black. After ten seconds, the credits roll.

The cut gives the viewer the sensation of a dead end. All the momentum and meaning of the story run straight into a wall, beyond which nothing can be known, creating a helpless feeling in the viewer. What happens next? Where did they go? [Despite the abundant criticism, this ending is actually brilliant, and is explained fully here.]

The opposite of this—a cut-from­black beginning—happens in every series and every movie. It has to, because the story has to begin somewhere.

At the outset, you know nothing. All you can do is watch what emerges from the darkness, and start to figure out where you are. In Memento, the first thing you see is a hand holding a Polaroid photo, shaking it to make the image appear. In The Godfather, the voice of a man with an Italian accent appears before his face does. “I believe in America,” he begins.

The standard movie opening is the opposite of a Sopranos-style dead end, and it gives us the opposite range of feelings. Instead of the sensation of running out of road, we get feelings of abundance and possibility. One of my favorite feelings in the world is settling into a couch, or a cinema seat, watching the opening credits of a movie. It’s like a newly-opened box of chocolates.

With a movie, you always have to put together the story from a standing start, because you’re already in the middle of the characters’ lives. You can’t actually see what happened before the first image appears, but you can piece it together through exposition. The character is shown in a divorce lawyer’s office. Another character asks him if his mother is still sick. His mantle is adorned with martial arts trophies. Everything you know about the character’s past is learned in the present.  Read More

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