Monday, August 3, 2009


Last Wednesday I noticed two very similar local stories on a Syracuse, NY news website. The first was about some kids who rigged a playground with razor blades, and the second was about a group of kids who set fire to a playground.

The thought of concealed razor blades sinking into small hands made me shudder. But I wasn't particularly surprised. This is par for the course for our species. We're not going to hell. We've always been there. This is what we are: vicious, sadistic little monkeys.

Years ago I came up with a theory about why people seem hard-wired to engage in vandalism. I think that it's a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics. In attempting to gain a reproductive advantage over its peers, an organism has two basic choices: work to build up its own resources, or work to destroy the resources of others. Since the entropy of any system always increases, it's always far easier to reduce order than to increase it by the same amount; tearing something down is much easier than building it up. It seems clear to me that an evolutionary process could select for vandalism, disturbing though the results may be.

It's useful to make those kids' behavior explicable because the alternative is to throw our hands up and start that letter to the editor about the kids today with the hair, and the music, and how our society is going down the tubes. But if instead we understand the behavior as symptomatic of humanity, I think a pattern emerges.

For the most part, I don't think that people grow up. They just get better and better at presenting their childhood behavior as rational. If you peel back that thick, shiny veneer of logic and rationality, you'll expose a small, mean core that contains the same posturing, bullying and one-upsmanship that you can see on any playground.

Believe it or not, this post is not an exercise in cynicism and nihilism. It's a call for empathy. Just because we're vicious little monkeys doesn't mean we don't have nobler selves. We can choose to aspire to our better natures. And we can occasionally bootstrap ourselves into being what we think we are, rather than just what we are.

But while we're yanking furiously on those bootstraps, let's not forget our baser selves, and how much we share with those kids who could not abide an untainted playground. Were you really that surprised? Methinks thou dost protest too much. Look at your own childhood. Look at most of the adults you know. Look at people in any time, and any place, throughout human history. On a good day we think that smacking the banana out of the other monkey's hand is the definition of a Good Idea. So don't waste your time being surprised at Proposition 8 or the myriad examples of bananasmacking that limn the daily headlines. We can instead choose to respond with a clarity and determination that will be more effective for being suffused with love.

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