Monday, March 12, 2007

What About Bob?

by Troy Chapman

Bob joined the ethics class I teach here in the prison, came for two weeks, then didn't show up again for the next three weeks. When he came back he raised his hand every two or three minutes and offered long rambling comments that were usually off-point. I had a certain amount of material that I wanted to cover and found myself thinking with a little irritation, “If you'd been here for the past three weeks you would know this stuff.”

The topic this night was, appropriately, intrinsic vs. extrinsic value. I was talking about the fact that we tend to measure value extrinsically — according to what people do and how they serve our needs or fail to do so. On this level people all have different value. There's a material version and a non-material version of this thinking. The material version judges value according to what people do for us materially. The non-material version judges value according to whether people are a beneficial presence in the world, whether they're "good" people or "bad" people.

Intrinsic value, on the other hand, has nothing to do with whether we're beneficial on any level. It simply is what it is and it's the same for all people. Intrinsically, the Dalai Lama and Jim Jones are of exactly equal value. So are the guy who shows up to ethics class every week and doesn't talk us to death and the guy who misses meetings and holds up the class with rambling soliloquies.

Hmm. I was thinking some of these thoughts and observing myself as Bob rambled on — something about why God sends people to hell — seemingly happy just to hear himself talk. I found my irritation dissipating and realized I was, in that moment, shifting from seeing Bob's extrinsic value to seeing his intrinsic value. I was, in other words, practicing what I was preaching.

I finally did cut him off, but by the time I did, I knew for certain that this class — and life for that matter — is more about people than the agenda. Whenever we put the agenda, no matter what it is, ahead of the people involved, we know we're off track.

In my introduction to this month's topic I said that refusing to accept peoples' imperfections is the very doorway to evil and this is one of the ways that's true. It leads to crazy conclusions like: It's okay to kill people to "save" them — re: Vietnam or Iraq.

Indeed, this is one way of looking at "imperfection" — it's the name we give to situations and things that don't serve our agendas or meet our expectations. One way of learning to see past imperfections (and even to celebrate them) is to see intrinsic value — the value of things even when they don't serve our agendas.

Bob wasn't serving my agenda but I found myself enjoying his quirkiness once I got past the idea that my agenda was the paramount concern between us. The universe has its own agenda and I saw with sudden clarity that Bob was playing his role in it — whatever it might be. That made me smile.

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