Friday thoughts: trying to define a few hard-to-define terms, such as hope, faith, how to describe something, when a joke really isn’t a joke, and character

This post is based on some things I’ve been thinking about for a long time, years in some cases.

Hope: The belief that it is possible for things to get better.

Faith: The belief that it is possible for things to stay similar at a similar level of function without constant intervention micromanaging on your part.

I came up with those definitions after a long bleak period in my life when I found myself wondering why should I keep making the effort to be a better person?

After a lot of soul-searching, I realized I’d lost hope and faith — in the world, in other people, and in myself.  As a result, I’d become very pessimistic. A loss of faith and hope results in a person believing that no matter how hard they try, the world in general and their life in particular is going to get worse; so the best they can hope for is slowing the rate of decline.

It’s a very bleak world-view. Once I got out of it and accepted faith and hope back into my life, I was much happier.

Now I find times when I see other people who have become so unpleasant they are driving away everyone around them. Oftentimes, their actions and words look a lot like the actions and words of someone who has lost faith, or hope, or both. They, like I once did, bark at everyone around them and trust no one else’s judgment, because the best that can be hoped for is to delay the inevitable screw-ups and disasters that they know other people will inevitably commit.

But over the years I have developed an aversion to anyone thinking their seat-of-the-pants psychoanalysis of someone else is more valid than the statements of the someone else who is actually living that someone else’s life.

So, a difficult problem when you are dealing with someone who seems to lack hope and faith in other people. I think most people use very shallow and obvious markers for hope and faith — “What do you mean, I lack faith in other people? I didn’t insist that bank teller recount my cash! I sat beside a stranger on the bus and didn’t assume they were going to stab me! How is that not faith in other people?” or “What do you mean, I lack hope in my life! I booked a vacation next year! How would I do that if I didn’t have any hope?”

Although each of those examples is a way of showing hope and faith, there’s more fundamental questions of “Do you think it’s possible for that person to make a good choice if they were in a situation where there wasn’t an obvious right answer or rule to follow and there wouldn’t be any immediate consequences for them?” (that’s faith), and “When you talk to someone, are you open to new possibilities and thoughts from that person, or do you start mentally listing all the ways that person has let you down in the past and is likely to let you down in future, so you can then start listing all the things you’ll need to do to avoid the inevitable letdowns and disappointments to come?” (that’s hope).

So, a difficult problem when you encounter a lack of either. But in trying to define what each of them is, my definitions above are the best I’ve been able to create.

How to describe something: say what it is, not what it isn’t.

I’ve got a cup of herbal tea sitting on my desk right now. It isn’t honeybush herbal tea. It isn’t chamomile herbal tea. It isn’t raspberry-leaf herbal tea. It’s not nettle leaf herbal tea. It’s not roasted dandelion root herbal tea. It’s not . . . It’s not . . . It’s not . . .

I hope you see the problem now. I can spend 20 more pages describing all the things my herbal tea isn’t, and that still won’t definitively tell you what it is.

What I can do is make some extremely specific denials, so specific you’ll begin to wonder if it’s something similar but just slightly different. It’s not room-temperature mint tea made only with peppermint.

So, then perhaps is it a hot mint tea made from a mixture which contains peppermint?

And if I refuse to deny that suggestion and change the subject, you must have guessed Right!!! Right???

Middle managers and bureaucrats are horrible for this little game. “Can I start on this project? Well, I don’t see any problems with your idea.” And then once the project is midway through, “I never actually said you had permission to start spending time on that project, or to start spending money to buy materials for it!”

And the worst part is, that middle manager is Right!!! Your-idea-not-having-any-obvious-problems is not the same as You-getting-permission-to-start-shifting-resources-to-your-idea.

I used middle management word games because it’s a clear example that’s fairly easy to describe.

But it happens in personal relationships too. And it’s painful when it does.

(The tea I was drinking was warm cinnamon- and orange-flavored rooibos tea, in case you were wondering.)

When something is not a joke: when the potential cost of what would happen if the person were serious is so high, it’s better to not associate with the person than take that risk.

This is a definition I came up with recently.

On the one hand, I occasionally say things that are meant to make someone take themselves and the topic of conversation less seriously. I have friends who do the same thing.

In vernacular, my friends and I are occasionally smart-asses.

But here is a situation I ran across recently: talking to someone in a bar, the person said “I want to call Jamie the bartender over here and see if I can crush his throat with a punch, I saw somebody do that in a movie and it looked really cool, and my boyfriend said that it actually works!”

Jamie the bartender was about medium height, medium build, with short dark hair. I write this to emphasize Jamie was a real person. That night, the bartender in front of us was a real person, with a real life, a real future, and other real people who cared about him.

He was a real person this idiot seemed quite eager to want to kill. After she hit him in the testicles first and caused him to double over in pain, because that looked really cool in the movie too!!

All this idiot’s statements were made in an eager, energetic and chirpy tone of voice, like a child looking forward to trying a new game.

To jump to the end, I said some rather emphatic things to her in a raised voice, and when she still repeated the same statements and showed me exactly what punch she intended to crush Jamie’s throat with, I left. It looked like Jamie had heard enough of that idiot’s comments he was keeping his distance, and I was about to lose control of my temper.

So, if I ever speak to that idiot again and reference that discussion as the reason why I’m not really interested in being around her, I expect she’ll use the defense “Oh, it was just a joke! Can’t you take a little joke?”

Why do I get to tell this idiot her little “joke” wasn’t at all funny, when my friends and I are often smart-asses who make stupid jokes to other people?

Because the risk of me having to watch a man die in front of me, or trying to help him hold on while desperately hoping the ambulance gets there in time, is so great that I’d rather not associate with that idiot than run that risk.

On the other hand, when someone tells me that they have very strong opinions about creationism versus evolution, and I reply by inquiring about their opinion of option C: humanity is a slave race genetically engineered from earlier primates by aliens, which explains the lack of a definitive missing link, as well as explaining yeti and bigfoot (they were first drafts) — in other words, when I am a complete smart-ass about the question of creationism versus evolution, then
(a) the thing I am being a smart-ass about is not going to get anyone killed, put them in the hospital, slander or libel them, or cause any other significant harm (except maybe some gritted teeth and temporarily raised blood pressure), and
(b) if the person I am talking to is willing to take an issue so much more seriously than I think it should be taken, perhaps it is better I found out sooner rather than later we had such a difference of opinion.

The gray area comes when a smart-ass says something that is not immediately life-and-death, but destroys trust. There are people who like to very loudly say very untrue or slanted things which are publicly humiliating to their friends, and then say “oh, it was just a joke, can’t you take a little joke?”

Some jokes aren’t funny. My definition above was my attempt to come up with a short explanation of when I accept something as “joke”, and when I decide “I’d rather not be around someone who likes to make that kind of ‘joke’.”

Character: character is what someone does. Not what they think, or what they feel, but what they actually do.

This was one of the hardest definitions for me to come up with. “Character” gets mentioned a lot, usually negatively: “I don’t like so-and-so’s character” or “I don’t think so-and-so has enough strength of character to accomplish what they’re trying to do.” And you’ll occasionally hear the complimentary statement: “So-and-so has a lot of character.”

Try to pin someone down on what character is, and you’ll get examples of why they have certain opinions about so-and-so’s character; but you likely won’t get a definition of what character actually is.

This definition was something I came to in a backwards way. I meet a lot of people who like to talk endlessly about what they think and feel — as long as it’s a relatively friendly and permissive audience who won’t argue back, won’t remember much of what they said later, and won’t ever ask the speaker “Well, that’s all well and good, but when are you actually going to make a decision about this and act on that decision, instead of just endlessly talking about yourself and all the things you could do or would like to do?”

That was when I realized those actual decisions a person makes and how they deal with the real consequences of those decisions is what character actually is.

And realizing that is one of the main reasons I wrote this whole piece, I wanted to put that down in writing.

Life is decisions and the actions from those decisions. My thoughts and feelings can affect my life and the lives of those around me, but only when I use those thoughts and feelings to help me make a decision and act on it.

For that matter, I can make a decision and act on it as a spur-of-the-moment type of thing, as little thought or feeling involved in it as possible. And that decision and the actions which come from it will still affect me more than any amount of thoughts or feelings that are never acted upon!

But many people like to talk endlessly about themselves, but never act on those words. They will gripe endlessly about their job and their friends, but never look for a new job or go to new places to meet new people. They will talk endlessly about all the things they are discontented with and the way things should really be done if it were up to them, but they’ll never make the effort to be actually affect the way things are done.

To actually act brings on real consequences, and there is always a risk some of those consequences can be unpleasant. Not ever deciding and acting, or delaying decisions and actions until only a few options are left, or letting other people make decisions and dictate your actions for you — those are all ways of saying “it’s not my fault, I didn’t decide to do that, I had to do that!!”

The person who stands up and says “Here is what I decided, and here is what I did.” — that is what character is. For good or ill, what they decide and what they do is who they actually are.

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