(About a 5 minute read)
I am very familiar with the idea of both the artists and the scientists that we humans harbor an irrational ape. That you have only to scratch our surfaces to find a scared and confused ape looking out at the world through ancient eyes filled with fear, superstition, bias, and error. I am very familiar with that idea.
I am not just talking about phobias this morning. I am not just talking about fear of leaving the house or fear of elevators. I am not even talking about the innate cognitive biases in how we think and reason. Instead, I am talking this morning about how our mind can construct whole mountains of nonsense from a grain of sand — and please, folks, I do not mean religions.
I believe any relatively unbiased person would say that at least religions have some truth to them. Whether Jesus was or was not god, he certainly got right the bits about casting the first stone, about throwing pearls before swine, and about giving everyone their due as humans — even tax collectors and prostitutes. No, I’m talking about whole mountains of nonsense made from a mere grain or two of sand.
I have a few of those mountains myself. To put those mountains in context, it’s my habit once a year — in November or December — to take down from my bookshelves a textbook or two in logic and study them just to brush up on the basics again. I’ve done that for a decade now.
And yet I harbor at least a few mountains of nonsense within me. There is even one that seems to me perfectly unshakable. That one rose up just a little more than a year ago.
One snowy night in February of 2018, someone knocked on my cottage door around eleven at night. It was a woman. A small, freezing woman, holding bags in each of her hands. Could she use my toilet?
Beyond that her worn face said she had obviously spent months outside, in all kinds of weather, her face also said she had once been pretty. And it still spoke, “I’m friendly. I’m harmless and I’m friendly.” But do you think I trusted her? Do you think I granted her even one of her 20 mild and moderate requests?
Can I use your toilet? No. Can I have a Coke? No. Can I have an old blanket? No. Can I have a sandwich? No. She went on and on — perhaps twenty requests — not one of them truly unreasonable. Not one of them granted.
In the end, she even joked about it. She didn’t get upset or angry or judgmental about being denied. The noble little woman joked about it. “I’m sorry our relationship didn’t work out”, she said with a broad grin and humor in her voice, just before she left.
I have told four or so people this story and each one of them has comforted me. Me! As if I’m the party who needs comfort here. “You did the right thing, Paul, you can’t trust anyone these days.” Can’t trust them with a Coke? Really?
I gave her five dollars when I had forty on hand, and that was it.
To put my response to her in context, I’m not entirely the most irrational man on the planet. I was raised by an exceptionally rational mother who almost religiously corrected any errors in my reasoning while I was growing up. She would stoop like a falcon to correct me the moment she detected any fallacies of logic.
I went on to a paid part time job while at university tutoring other students in logic. But not before achieving 614 out of 615 possible grade points in my first ever formal logic course — a record for my professor. The highest score in all his years teaching logic.
I often make mistakes — some pretty glaring ones too — but I’m not exactly Wiley Coyote when it comes to reasoning skills. So how on earth could I have been so irrational as to deny that lady even as much as a can of Coke?
Honestly, I was afraid of her. I was afraid she might have a companion hidden around the corner of the cottage. That she was the foot in the door to robbery. That even her parting joke was a feint. etc.
Did I have even a shred of evidence for any of that nonsense? No. The next morning, there were only her own tracks in the snow. Only her own.
And — if you have just a wee bit of skill reading animal and human tracks, you would know she wasn’t lifting her feet like an energetic person that night. She was tired and worn. She most likely would not have had it in her to do more than sleep in my chair, let alone mug me.
I don’t think I’m alone in being an irrational ape at times. I have seen that ape in myself many, many times. The woman at my door haunts my memories more than the rest. Sixty years of effort trying to think straight demolished by a moment’s fear, a little mindless fear.