Why we do the things we do.

| February 5, 2008 | 10 Replies

Does anyone really know the answer? Ever?

That’s the point of this excerpt from a short essay by novelist Harlan Ellison:

. . . [My] fourth marriage just sort of happened: It seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact—and this is the core of all my wisdom about love—whenever we try to explain why we have done any particular thing, whether it’s buying T-bills or why we would live in a house in the mountains or why we took the trip to Lake Ronkonkoma, or whatever it was, the only rationale that ever rings with honesty is: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” We’re really no smarter than cactus or wolverines or plankton; and the things we do, we always like to justify them, find logical reasons for them; and then you go to court later and the judge says, “Well, didn’t you know that it was doomed from the start?” I’m waiting for someone to say to the judge, “Because, schmuck, I’m no smarter than you.”

From A Curmudgeon’s Garden of Love, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, p. 50 (1991).

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Category: Humor, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Quotes

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (10)

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  1. Re: The writers' strike.

    I love Harlan Ellison. He's been a curmudgeon for as long as he's been alive, if such a thing is possible. I've been struggling to come up with a blog post about the current writers' strike but I think I'll just use this opportunity to let Harlan make his very eloquent and impassioned point about it.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: Thanks for posting the youtube of Ellison. I'd never seen him in person. Quite entertaining.

    His point about the damned "amateurs" made me squirm a bit, though. Here we are posting on this blog, competing directly with paid writers at some other sites (and competing with unpaid writers at other sites). I know there are reasons for jumping in and writing as "amateurs," many of them having to do with many of the paid sites not addressing important issues, but there is that side-effect . . .

  3. I recommend clicking on just about any Ellison clip you find on Youtube. He always has something to say and it's always passionate and interesting, even if you find that you don't agree with him.

    As for the "amateurs" comment, I'm sure you know that I agree with you that we are living in a great time where amateurs like us can express ourselves and find kindred spirits that we otherwise would never have met. Unfortunately that means that there will be a LOT of crap out there! Just take a dumpster-dive into Youtube someday to see what people think is worthy of showing to the rest of the world. It's astoundingly self-absorbed and just unadulterated awfulness!

    My point is that the professionals need not worry all that much. The crappy amateur work quickly reveals itself as such and I think gives us a new appreciation of someone who can write or photograph or videotape well. If the paid writers are really all that good they should be able to blow any amateur out of the water!

    I think blogs are pushing pros to be better writers and more relevant than ever. They can't relax and get complacent with blogs like DI nipping at their heels!

  4. Now a post about the actual subject of this blog…

    I was having a conversation recently with my current girlfriend about my past sexual experiences. (That's ALWAYS a mistake, in case you don't already know that.) I found myself trying to defend some of my more questionable experiences. (For the record, also a very bad idea.) In response to her ever higher pitched queries of, “How could you?!?” and “What were you thinking?!?” about incidents which in retrospect were clearly a bad idea, all I could answer was that I wasn’t thinking, I was just “going with the flow”.

    That answer didn’t seem to satisfy her for some reason.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Ahh Harlan Ellison. He is wrong on one thing, he Is an @ssh0le, and not necessarily all the amateurs are. However, he is totally right concerning royalities. He and other professional writers make a living by writing, and should be paid by someone if that someone is making money by selling their work.

    I get really ticked off when ever I see one of the "anti-piracy" ads on TV or on the beginning of a dvd, that claims that by not paying for a disk deprives thousands of employees in the production and publishing of the disk of fair pay, when the writers usually get little or nothing.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: There apparently is a thin line between courageous honesty and dangerous honesty, eh? And it's a constantly shifting line that often gets blurry. You are, indeed, a brave man.

    I once shared "the number of people with whom we've been intimate" with a woman who I was then steadily dating. My number was within the range of numbers often bandied about in various surveys on this topic. Her number was double mine. I never directly raised that topic again, though I thought about it periodically . . .

    I really do like Ellison's point about not really knowing why we do things. We latch onto reasons, true enough. But reasons are a dime a dozen. We have entire industries dedicated to manufacturing reasons (law, politics, clinical psychology, religion).

    Incredibly often, a "reason" adds nothing at all to the conversation. It's as if the person giving the reason barked like a dog and we reacted by saying "interesting" (meaning NOT interesting), while thinking I'm still willing to hang around chattering with you because I like being with you, despite your earnest speculation because I do it too, and we forgive each other as long as we don't do it too often. Something like that.

    I do think Ellison's main point–that we so often don't really know why we do the things we do. How could we, really? Human animals are complex adaptive systems consisting of trillions of cells (many of which don't even have our DNA http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1286) living in environments that are even more complex. That there is some order at all–ANY ability to predict any human conduct is hard to fathom. But, somehow, there is quite a bit of predictable order. Perhaps too much. http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1287

  7. "But darling, I'm a complex adaptive system consisting of trillion of cells, many of which don't even have my DNA, living in a complex environment! THAT'S why I did what I did!"

    I'll try that one tonight.

  8. Ben says:

    Erich you are not an amateur. And you know it.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Ben: I acknowledge that I enjoy writing and I do it a lot. I was using the term "amateur" in the spirit of Ellison's video–I don't get paid for doing it. I would agree that calling the people who carefully write the posts and comments at DI "amateurs" would be insulting.

  10. I would never be insulted by being called an amateur.

    As I'm sure you all know, the root of the word means "love". I spent a year shooting and editing my first documentary expecting no compensation. My brother Dave competed as an amateur bodybuilder for over 20 years, doesn't regret a bit of it and is now a well respected figure in the bodybuilding community. My daughter is an amateur thespian, happily appearing in high school and community theater productions throughout the year.

    Doing something just for the love of it…what could be more noble than that? I know Ellison meant it as a put-down but I proudly wear the label of amateur.

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