043 - On Rumor And Fact - Moral Letters for Modern Times
You are wondering how I have found out what you were planning, when you did not tell me yourself. Nature offers up many seemingly inexhaustible resources: water raining down to create lakes and oceans, fish to fill them, and sun and wind to keep the weather cycles streaming. Another resource we will never run short of is rumor.
The tabloids at the checkout counter fill us in on the intimate details of the lives of the rich and famous. What would be trivial about any other, “He was spotted in Starbucks wearing an old sweater,” is consumed avidly and questioned rarely. We don’t stop to question our prurient interest or our voyeuristic bent. So let me ask you, Deuteros, why do you think we cannot look away? I suspect one reason is this: people are poor at determining the value of something that stands alone, but we are savants when it comes to comparing two things.
Ask a person, “Do you like fruit?” and you will elicit a lukewarm “I guess, yes.” Now ask them whether they prefer apples or bananas and you will hear them answer with confidence. When it comes to celebrities, the tabloids hold them out to us not in splendid isolation, but as an implicit contrast to our own lives. “Look at their mansion, behold their supercar, bewonder their Caribbean vacation!” These displays do not drive our admiration, but more often only discontent with our own lives.
We are much more likely to find bitterness, envy, and resentment when we peer over our neighbors’ walls. The French have a proverb:
What makes us discontented with our condition is the absurdly exaggerated idea we have of the happiness of others.
We see the outward signs of others’ success, and we forget both the sacrifices that were demanded, and the inner struggles that remain. When we look at others, our views of reality are shaded by the tint of our own minds: our prejudices, our fears, and our faults.
The rumor we read on the page or concoct in our heads is never reflective of reality. So why do we collect and pass on rumors, like couriers supplying narcotics to their addicted clientele? It is because we know a scandal or fall from grace is never far. Rumors bite, they bleed. They tell us that our life cannot be so bad, because look how badly that one screwed theirs up. This is a comparison we gladly make. It is the promise of a boost that comes from another’s fall that keeps us coming back to the water cooler. But it is no noble thing to delight in another’s misery.
To not feel elevated by another’s fall is the first step in understanding that your worth is measured only by your own thoughts and deeds. Focus on the facts of your own actions, and give rumors no run of your thoughts.