My family and I are traveling some in July and a few days ago we passed a spot on our travels where, last year, I got really lost and turned around. Ah, memories.
It wasn’t a good memory because I got really angry and frustrated. And some of this frustration got directed at Jana. Nothing big, but we both were reminiscing about the tense exchanges we had.
As I thought about what went wrong that day my reflections eventually settled on Immanuel Kant. Yeah, I’m weird like that. Marital spats make me think of deontological ethics.
Here’s where my reflections took me.
First, I’m not a stereotypical guy. That is, I readily admit when I’m lost. Mainly because I get lost so much there is no real point in pretending. Jana has the better sense of direction. So I generally ask her about how to get to places.
But while Jana has the better sense of direction she really doesn’t like maps. I, conversely, find maps easy and intuitive. So it’s sort of a paradox. She hates maps but has the great sense of direction. I get lost but love maps. Go figure.
Anyway, last year when I got lost I did what I usually do, I said something like “I’m lost.” I’m kind of obvious that way.
Being lost I hand Jana my iPhone and ask her to pull up Google Maps and get us located with the GPS.
This is Jana’s nightmare scenario, me handing her a map and barking questions at her because I’m lost.
Needless to say this doesn’t go well. I’m asking for help and she’s struggling to provide it. We keep making wrong turns and my temper rises. A lot of it is directed at myself. Some of it is directed at the gods. But some of it is directed at Jana. I want her to navigate me out of this mess but she’s not doing it.
This year, as we drove past the location of this mishap, I tried to reflect back to understand why I got so mad at Jana. We were lost because of my mistake. And while I handed Jana my iPhone I knew that she was going to struggle to make heads or tails of the map. So I’m expecting something of her that I know is unreasonable. And yet I got angry at her. Why?
In thinking about how to ground our ethical decisions Immanuel Kant famously came up with the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative goes something like this: Act in such a way so that you can will your actions to become a universal law. Basically, a deed is ethical if you can confidently assert that everyone should follow your example. For example, you shouldn’t steal because if everyone followed your example it’s pretty clear that the social fabric of society would fall apart.
While I like the categorical imperative it find it a bit too abstract for daily use. But what I do use a lot is Kant’s alternative formulation of the categorical imperative: Treat people as ends not as means.
I thought of that while I was reflecting on last year’s marital spat. The reason I was getting upset at Jana was because I was treating her as a means—a way to get me unlost—rather than as an end in herself. I wanted Jana to function in a certain way to help me with something I wanted, needed, expected, or desired. And when she failed in that function I got frustrated.
And frustration is diagnostic here. Freud said that frustration is the feeling we have when our goals are thwarted. When we are blocked from reaching a goal we get frustrated. Think of being late and stuck in a traffic jam. That’s having your goal blocked. And we all know what that feels like.
So I was frustrated with Jana because I wanted to get unblocked, I wanted to get pointed in the right direction again. The frustration was diagnostic that I was treating Jana as a means, as a tool, as a functionary to get to my goal.
Another way to say this is that I was being selfish. By treating Jana as a means toward my end I had placed myself at the center. I was the end, and she was the means.
As I stepped back from this incident and took in a wider view it dawned on me that this is the way it is everywhere in my life. When I notice myself getting upset at people it’s generally the case that I’m treating them as a means rather than as an end. The person I’m interacting with is viewed in functional terms. Are they helping me get what I want? And if not, well, I get frustrated.
You hear Christians say a lot “It’s not about me, it’s about God.” I get that sentiment, but I often don’t know what it means.
So how about this tweak? “It’s not about me, it’s about the person standing in front of me.” That is, one of the things we can to do to remove ourselves from the “center” of the universe is to stop treating people as means to our ends. For treating people as means is the very definition of self-centeredness, it is using people to satisfy your own needs. But when we treat people as ends in themselves we become, of necessity, de-centered. Their needs and desires become the focus, not ours.
Not that any of this is rocket science:
1 John 4.20-21
Anyone who says “I love God” and hates his brother is a liar, since no one who fails to love the brother whom he can see can love God whom he has not seen. Indeed this is the commandment we have received from him, that whoever loves God, must also love his brother.