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Nasruddin and Road Rage

by Bill Meacham on September 7th, 2010

As a teaching method, the Sufis tell stories of Nasruddin, an eccentric mullah (a local judge) who does apparently illogical and hence peculiarly funny things. Here is a well-known example:

A constable patrolling the neighborhood at night comes upon Nasruddin on his knees under a street lamp. “What are you doing, Nasruddin” he asks. “Looking for my keys; I dropped them” comes the reply. “Oh, let me help you. Where were you when you dropped them?” “Over there by the corner.” “Over there?” exclaims the constable. “Then why are you looking for them over here?” Nasruddin replies “Because the light is better over here!”

One of the things we find when examining human nature is that we, like our primate cousins, are highly attuned to social status, and that there are distinct advantages to having high status. A recent article by Jonah Lehrer on the causes and effects of stress compares humans to baboons. In both cases lack of social status causes stress, and stress exacerbates all kinds of illness.(1) The more stressed you are, the more likely you are to suffer from whatever ailment besets you, from a common cold to heart attack. For baboons, low status means “You never know when you’re going to get beat up. You never get laid. You have to work a lot harder for food.”(2) For humans, the situation is much the same, if a bit less stark and obvious. Instead of getting physically beaten up most of us get told what to do and must do as we are told. No wonder we look for ways to enhance our status in other ways, which may not be particularly appropriate. Road rage, for instance, comes from the urge to dominate someone else and anger at being dominated. We can’t see the other driver’s face, so our urges are unrestrained by feelings of empathy for the other that are part of normal face-to-face interaction.

In this respect we are a bit like Nasruddin. We are unlikely to gain any permanent status from dominating another driver, and in fact the attempt increases our risk of accident and damage. But we go right on looking for something in a place where it can’t be found.

Nasruddin does not appear to know how foolish he is, and the humor comes from juxtaposing that ignorance with his ability to describe his intention quite precisely. How silly, we think. But are we any better? Another thing we find when examining human nature is that we, unlike our primate cousins, can exercise second-order mentation; that is, we can pay attention to and think about ourselves, not just our goals and the things in the world we are engaged with. If we are to be excellent humans, we need to cultivate the ability to notice what we are doing as we are doing it, and then quit doing things that make no sense.

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(1) Lehrer, Jonah. “Under Pressure.” Wired Magazine, Vol. 18 No. 8, pp 130ff. Also found at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/07/ff_stress_cure/all/1 as of 7 September 2010.
(2) Ibid, p. 132

From → Philosophy

2 Comments
  1. Great article. Thanks.

  2. The following from your blog says it all… Thanks

    If we are to be excellent humans, we need to cultivate the ability to notice what we are doing as we are doing it, and then quit doing things that make no sense.

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