Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Stories of Benevolence, Direct From the Freezer

Did you ever look in the freezer for your car keys? I confess. I’ve done it. So has George Carlin:

Hey, you might as well, sh*t, they might be in there.  Wouldn't wanna pass up a nice obvious place like the freezer, would ya'?  'Cause you can talk yourself into it, you can picture them in there, that's what the mind is for... picturing where you left your car keys.

Losing stuff is frustrating, right …

because, 'where is it?'  See, basically, that's the part that bothers me the most.  I'm a
practical guy...'Where is it?  I just had it.'  You know that feeling, 'IT WAS

Where do these things go when they're lost? Me, I don’t know. But George has a theory:

It’s a nice idea, right? Benevolent and all – especially about that place people call heaven.

And that’s where I start my little tale for today. A tale of losing things. A tale with a moral: a tale of how losing things tells me something about the world.

Something benevolent about this place.

There’s plenty that’s not benevolent. Popular TV shows, for instance. Why do people respond so deeply to the Nihilism of shows wanting us to sympathise with a murdering pathologist? Or with a murdering mafia boss? (You can only pray they’re not on that the same time, ‘cos it’d just kill you to miss one.) Another show, Game of Thrones, all the rage at the minute, wants you to sympathise with what looks like a whole nutcase cast of murdering, pillaging raping swine – apart from the obvious prime-time carnage of the “red wedding” one latest highlight of this being, (and I quote here just to make sure I get it right), “the one in which Jaime forced himself on his twin sister over the dead body of their incestuous son.”

Nice. Go Jaime.

But that’s par for the course in the new TV shows, right? praised for all their realism and depth, which amounts all too often to just misery and murder and oh-so-dark secrets.

So why is only misery and depredation, and usually some kind of personality disorder, deemed “deep” and “realistic”? Novelist Jeffrey Perren has a theory:

Clearly a certain view of life at work there. ... I think many people feel - justifiably - as if we are living in the [moral equivalent of the] 12th century, and that the brutal and unjust get ahead, suffering no consequences, while the decent are screwed over repeatedly. After all, they read that in the news on a daily basis and see it at work all the time.

I think he’s right. I think he’s on the money. This is a view of the world, and of other people, that’s widespread: that all the world is eveil, friend, except for me and thee – and I’m not even too sure about thee.

But I don’t agree with it. I think it’s mistaken.  I don’t agree with it because that’s not the world I see as I get older.

I’ll keep the story simple, but the last time it happened was last week, and once again it ended up with a happy ending.

It started like this. My other half lost her laptop computer. Lost her laptop with all her work on it from the last six months! (Come one, who else but nerds and someone who’s just lost a computer actually backs up.)

You know that feeling,“Where is it?” “I just had it.”   “IT WAS JUST HERE!!!'"   Where was it? Somewhere in Auckland, where she might have put it down and left it. How many places could there be? Only about six. Or seven. Or more. Early next morning we rang the four places we could possibly ring to see if it was there: no result. But just three hours after we started calling, we got a call ourselves from the good folk doing security at Takapuna’s Shore City. She’d basically left the laptop on a planter in the middle of the shopping mall (the reason why would take longer to tell than you’ve got patience for), and someone had found it and handed it in.

Handed in a virtually new laptop. Just found it in a shopping mall and handed it right in.

See, contrary to TV-show watchers, popular wisdom and Jean Paul Sartre, hell is not other people. Other people, in my experience, are generally pretty damned decent when it comes down to it. You see the same sort of thing after every disaster, of course; but I like lost property – and this story of miraculously unlost property isn’t the only one I could recount.

I could tell you about animals lost and found again by some other benevolent soul. Stories about benevolent finders are legion.

How about wallets. I remember a friend losing his wallet, money, credit cards and passport all while changing planes at Heathrow, the last place in the world you’d want to lose it all. In a panic after backtracking all his steps with no result (“the longer you look for it, the stranger the places are that you are looking … You know why?  You've already looked in the easy places”) he jumped on the phone to ring a friend, at which point someone tapped him on the shoulder with his passport open at his photo and asked, “Is this yours?”

How about that? A random stranger handing over his full wallet asking, “Is this yours?” Not for a reward, but because that’s what people like us do.

Another story from dozens, also from Heathrow (you’d be surprised how many dramas occur at the busiest airport in the world): a flatmate returning from a summer working in Greece arrived back home to begin her studies in London with bag, backpack and wallet, only to discover she’d left behind on the Underground platform at Terminal 3 her handbag containing her entire summer savings. Her and her friends had been yapping so much they’re left behind the very thing she’d gone away to earn: a wad of cash to get her through the university year. All was panic, all was uproar, yet just two hours later a call came from the Terminal 3 stationmaster: there’s a bag here with your name in it to come and pick up.

How about that: another person we’d never meet, and a stationmaster who refused any reward, who had both looked through  a handbag full of cash just to find a name and phone number so they could return it.

That’s the sort of world most of us live in, for the most part, if we but realise it. Not a brutal and unjust 12th century immorality play in which the vile get ahead and the decent are screwed over repeatedly – but a fairly sunlit kind of place in which people are basically good and decent, and knowing them can be fun.

The sort of place Amanda Palmer talks about below, really, where other people are part of a pretty benevolent place, a plae of trust and friendship where even indirect connections are mostly a blessing and not a curse.

Hell is not other people. Mostly, instead, other people help make this place heaven.

Here’s Amanda Palmer again:


  1. "So why is only misery and depredation, and usually some kind of personality disorder, deemed “deep” and “realistic”?"

    I'm not convinced the creators of shows like House of Cards do regard it as genuinely realistic; rather they are pushing for the mainstream to regard it as realistic - because compared to this supposed "realism" their own weaknesses look minor by comparison. It might even allow them to feel superior. I think the motivation is a combination of the vandalist who destroys property for no personal gain, and the gossip columnist who likes to find feet of clay in the minor misdemeanours and foibles of celebrities or other successful people. Lower the moral expectations and standards overall and you're less likely to be morally condemned, or at least feel better about your weaknesses.

  2. I saw an interesting comment from the producers of 'Homeland' on the DVD of series one -- talking about writing Claire Daines's character, they said the series was intended for cable so "they had to give her a disorder," "maybe a sex addiction." In the end they went with making her bipolar which, as it happens, does allow some decent plot twists.
    But they were seeming to suggest that without some sort of gratuitous disorder, or other naturalistic touches, otherwise superb series like 'Homeland' wouldn't fit the bill on cable.


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