Are People Doing the Best They Can?

I recently encountered a psychologist who said, in essence, “People are doing the best they can; and they’re getting something out of what they’re doing.” He maintained, and he’s right, that psychologists and therapists especially should keep this in mind. He’s largely right. Any therapist knows that once you find out more about a person’s situation, no matter how irrational something seems out-of-context, it makes sense to the person doing it. As one lady puts it, “I can’t stop smoking. It’s the only time I have for myself. It’s just for me.”

This is what we have to remember. When you tell someone, or expect someone, to give up something that seems plainly irrational, you’re also asking them to give up something else. Like this lady with her smoking. Of course she should stop smoking. The wisdom and rationality of this policy is not in question. But what is she giving up? How can she get it elsewhere? Does she believe she can get it elsewhere? Does she even believe it’s right to have time for herself — and, if not, does she smoke compulsively as a way to destroy herself as punishment for wanting something she assumes is evil? There are a number of questions which she must confront before you can expect her to stop smoking … or ask her to stop smoking, if she’s a loved one.

I’m not just talking about smoking, but about anything that involves a personal decision. It’s frankly naive to assume that people are being irrational just for the sake of being irrational. They’re getting something out of it. Are they doing the best they can? In most cases, no. Irrational behavior by definition involves some kind of mistake. A mistake can potentially be corrected. If “I’m doing the best I can” becomes an excuse for not doing anything, it’s not the truth. People can usually do better, but they’re doing the best they can given their mistaken assumptions.

I cannot tell you the number of calls and emails I get from people about their loved ones. I now have someone in my office just to field these situations. These emails and phone messages boil down to, “You’ve got to talk to my son.” Or daughter. Or spouse. Or friend. “You’ve got to talk to” doesn’t mainly mean “talk.” It means “change.” In essence, people are saying, “You’ve got to change so-and-so.” I might reply, “I can’t change so-and-so. Only so-and-so can change so-and-so.” People always agree, and always understand this. But hope springs eternal. “You’ve got to talk to him.” Which means change him. This false, mystical, Wizard-of-Oz-like belief that others can be changed against their will is one of the biggest causes of destruction in every aspect of human society today.

I hear people — not just therapy clients, but anyone speaking in the media or on the Internet — talking about the personal benefit of their belief in God. I don’t agree with this belief (I know I’m in the minority on this subject, and I’m used to it.) But I’m still curious to know, what does the person get out of this belief? It’s remarkable how the answer is almost always the same. “God will watch out for me. And God will make sure that everything which happens is supposed to happen. It’s all happening for a reason, whether you believe the reason makes sense or not.”

These seem like understandable things to want. Who doesn’t want to know that somebody has your back? A few of us are fortunate enough to find at least one person in life who has our back. Many of us — I suspect most of us — are not even that fortunate. Parents, spouses, friends … most of them disappoint, usually in serious ways. The exceptions are precious. Given this fact, who wouldn’t want the concept of a supernatural being who is benevolent and always has our back?

The problem is, it makes no sense, even on its own terms.

Let’s assume God exists, and he’s on your side. If he’s on your side, he’s on everyone else’s side, too, am I right? But how can that be? If someone treats you poorly and disappoints you — your spouse or your kid or your parent — then isn’t God just as much rooting for this disappointing person as for you? If so, how does that make you feel?

And then there is the problem of evil. There are evil people who do bad things. We all know this. Why does God allow evil in the world? Why does God allow awful things to happen that are nobody’s fault, such as somebody’s little child dying from cancer? The only answer religious people have is, “God works in mysterious ways. It’s all happening for a Reason.” It’s circular and senseless, even disappointing and demoralizing. I thought religion was supposed to bring peace and serenity, but I don’t see how it possibly can without a spectacular level of denial and evasion. To believe what religion teaches — and I’m talking about way more than merely belief in God here — you have to quite literally shut down your mind. When drug abusers do this, we call it neurotic, and properly so. When Presidents and Popes do it, we call it … noble.

As for politics, I find that liberalism and conservatism spring from the same source. People find this shocking. To me it’s the most obvious and self-evident thing in the world. When you talk to a liberal about Government, he’s talking about God. The great majority of liberals are agnostic or atheistic, or at least very liberal about what they think religion should be. They don’t get agitated if you’re atheistic. But if you question their god of government, they go into a rage that rivals the fundamentalism of the Middle East. The reasons given for the rage? “You cannot leave people to fend for themselves. They must have someone watching their backs. They must have a safety net. They must have a level playing field.” Who is to provide all this? Not God, but the government. Change the word “God” to “government” in the sermon of any religious preacher, and you’ll have Big Government liberalism.

Liberalism and socialism are even more irrational than religion. Socialism is quite literally insane. In order to provide for the masses, it takes away all means of economic calculation and, at the root of it all, human reasoning. Government takes over, enslaving the minds we need to build businesses, create jobs, and engineer discoveries. It condemns and outlaws profit, requiring the brilliant to morally and fiscally work for free, unappreciated and as a duty. It cannot work and should not work. But this is what socialism requires, and this is what Western/American liberalism boils down to as well, in perhaps a less extreme form.

In the end, I can only say that most people probably are doing the best they can. But they sure could do a whole hell of a lot better.