This passage comes from The New York Times: “Long before seat belts or common sense were particularly widespread, my family made annual trips to New York in our station wagon. Mom and Dad took the front seat, my infant sister sat in my mother’s lap and my brother and I had the back all to ourselves. We’d lounge around doing puzzles, reading comics, and counting license plates. Eventually we’d fight. When our fight had finally escalated to the point of tears, our mother would turn around to chastise us, and my brother and I would start to plead our cases. ‘But he hit me first,’ one of us would say, to which the other would inevitably add, ‘But he hit me harder.’
“It turns out that my brother and I were not alone in believing that these two claims can get a puncher off the hook. In virtually every human society, ‘He hit me first’ provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. It is thought that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first. The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. People think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later, and that their reasons and pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than that of others.” *
The stuff of wars, soap operas, divorce courts, Hamlet, and more all borrow on that equation, as do we. While we might wish we’d left that even-numberedness to our childhood and adolescence, it’s not to be. The dynamic of dealing with issues that are unwanted, yet persist continues to play out in board rooms, neighborhoods, marriages, and between nations—we justify, we blame, we complain.
Issues that are unwanted, yet persist can be a powerful impetus for change, as evidenced by the progress of human rights, for example. But there’s another world of things that are unwanted, yet persist—things that we complain about over and over, like some aspect of our relationships or jobs that is not working, and yet we find ourselves keeping around.
If we put what’s “unwanted, yet persists” together with “fixed ways of being,” we get what we call a “racket.” It’s a “mashup” of sorts (a web buzzword). In a mashup, one web application is combined with another, making both applications more productive and robust—you get something greater than the sum of the parts. If you mash up what’s unwanted, yet persists (which is most likely occurring as a complaint) and a fixed way of being, you also get something greater than the sum of its parts, but in this case, the yield heads in the wrong direction—the combination is unproductive or more accurately, counterproductive.
A complaint is some kind of opinion or judgment of the way things “should” or “shouldn’t be.” The evaluative component isn’t a commentary on facts that are true or false, accurate or not, but again how we think things should be. By fixed way of being we mean acting in a predictable and repetitive manner (like always frustrated, always upset, always angry, always nice, always annoyed, always suspicious, always confused, etc.). Whatever our fixed way of being is, it’s not something we have a choice over. It’s just there—it shows up automatically when the complaint shows up. It’s also worth noting that a recurring complaint doesn’t cause the way of being, nor does the way of being cause the recurring complaint—they simply come together in one package. The whole point here, though, is that it’s a fixed way of being, not a possible way of being.
The term “racket” comes from the days of big-city gangsters and street-level criminals who conducted questionable activities—loan-sharking, bribery, larceny—usually set up to get some kind of payoff, camouflaged by an acceptable cover above suspicion. In a “racketeering” operation, the efforts at concealing what’s going on behind the scenes can become quite elaborate so as to protect and ensure the success of the operation. We borrow the term racket as it’s applicable to our contemporary lives and because it carries with it many of the same properties—deception, smoke screens, payoffs, etc.
Sometimes persistent complaints originate with us, other times they come at us from someone else. It’s harder to see that we’re in “racket mode” with complaints that come at us, because it looks like somebody else is the persistent complainer, and we’re just an innocent bystander. But under closer scrutiny, it turns out we too have complaints—complaints about their complaints. Our matching complaint might show up like, “don’t they understand, don’t they know how it is for me, why are they nagging, don’t they see everything I’m doing for them?” When we complain, we feel quite justified that our response is appropriate to the situation.
We explain the rationale behind our complaints to interested (and uninterested) parties, and point out how pleased we are with ourselves for taking the necessary steps to sort things out—we have a certain fondness for our attempts, for “trying.” We might get our friends, family, or coworkers to agree that we’re dealing with our complaints the best we can. If they point out that perhaps we’re the one perpetuating the problem, we could feel misunderstood, put out, even busted. Seen from a distance, there can be something almost endearing about how we go about all this—as if it’s part of our authentic and sincere spirit—but actually, our rationale for doing what we do is another thing entirely. This is the camouflage or cover-up part. The deceptive nature of a racket and the allure of the payoff keep us from realizing the full impact rackets have in our lives.
The payoffs for keeping rackets around usually show up in several ways: being right and making others wrong (not the factual kind of right, but thinking that we are right and the other person is wrong), being dominating or avoiding domination, justifying ourselves and invalidating others (attributing cause to some thing or person other than ourselves), engaging in the win/lose dynamic (not “winning” like a celebration with trophies, applause, or congratulations to the opponent, but winning such that someone else is the loser or is lessened in some way). These payoffs are like facets of a diamond—although one facet might be more dominant than another (and we might deny or not be aware that some aspect of a payoff is active in our case), they’re really all at play.
The pull of these payoffs is often compelling enough to get us to give up love, vitality, self-expression, health, and happiness. That’s a ridiculously strong force. Those costs are the standard fare of a racket. It’s pretty obvious that we can’t be happy, vital, and loving while we’re making someone wrong, dominating someone, being right, or justifying ourselves—one displaces the other. This is where choice comes into the picture.
Rackets, although one thing, have two forms of existence (somewhat like ice and steam are two forms of H2O). One form of a racket shows up as “I am X, Y, or Z.” The second shows up as “ahhh, I have a racket that is X, Y, or Z.” When we are the racket, it shapes and determines our way of being. But when we have a racket, it has very little power over our way of being. We have a choice about what’s at play—about giving up our rackets, our positions, our unproductive ways of being. When we elect to transform our default ways of being—being right, coming out on top (the even-numberedness, so to speak)—we move to a place of freedom, a place of possibility. The question then becomes: How do I express my life? What would be, for me, the most extraordinary, created, invented life? It becomes a matter of art, of design. How extraordinary are the everyday aspects of our lives; how rich our lives are, how full of opportunity, when we act on the possibility of living life fully.
* Adapted from Daniel Gilbert, New York Times, 7/24/06.