Today’s post is about cognitive science. But it’s also about love, in ways that will become clear.
In this post, I will regurgitate what Jordan Peterson has said about the Big Five personality traits, and then I will have a comment about them. If you doubt my word, or want to hear the same things said in a much more detailed, professional, and actually egg-headed manner, please feel free to watch the JP video below.
I have posted before about the MBTI, a personality typology which some people find insightful, but which was developed by amateurs. The MBTI makes a lot of intuitive sense to many people, but it was still made up. And it is not the only one with this problem. Peterson points out in this video that most personality typologies started as a theory which the developers then tried to apply to actual people. Not so with the Big Five. These are personality traits that emerge naturally from data. (JP says that much more convincingly than I do, of course.) They vary among individuals within every culture, and they are fairly stable throughout a person’s life. These traits are on a continuum, not binary. Each of us comes into this world falling at a certain point on each of these continua. As we mature, we expand our range along the continuum, but we are never going to move our set point from one end of a continuum to the other.
The Big Five Personality Traits
This will be easier to understand if we look at the Big Five.
Openness (to new experiences)
Very extraverted people draw energy from being around others. Very introverted people are drained by this. (This is the only trait from the Big Five that shows up, with the same terminology, in the MBTI.)
People with high neuroticism are more susceptible to negative emotion.
People with high agreeableness want to please others. Less agreeable people are less motivated to please others and more motivated to reach their own goals.
People with high conscientiousness are more industrious and more orderly than people without.
People with high openness tend to be creative types. They are also more likely to be politically liberal. (I am high openness, but due to a long personal journey, not politically leftist. My politics are spite of my temperament. This does mean that typical conservative arguments often don’t appeal to me.)
The Big Five and the Sexes
This is an aside, but Peterson often refers to the Big Five traits when talking about average differences between men and women. Women are, on average, more agreeable than men, higher in neuroticism, and slightly higher in conscientiousness. It is easy to see why these traits would flow from being designed to be moms. Even a greater tendency to negative emotion is an advantage when you’re taking care of preverbal children and you have to be sensitive to their distress.
These Are Factory Settings
It’s easy to see how a person could feel inferior by virtue of having any given one of these traits. It’s also easy to imagine how people who are proud of their trait could think there is something seriously wrong with people on the other end of the continuum.
Why don’t you want to be around other people?/ Why can’t you ever entertain yourself? (Extraversion)
Why are you so sensitive?/so insensitive? (Neuroticism)
Why are you so domineering?/so wishy-washy? (Agreeableness)
Why are you so lazy and irresponsible/so uptight and controlling? (Conscientiousness)
Why are you such a stick-in-the-mud/a hippie? (Openness)
All of us have character flaws. And sure, they fall along the fault lines of our Big Five traits, no doubt. But having any given one of these traits is not the same thing as having a sin nature. Conversely, not a single one of these traits will make the bearer a perfect person, either. These are just the factory settings.
And now we get to the love.
I was thinking about these traits as I sat in a Sunday School lesson about the love of God. To be specific, I was bemoaning that my natural tendency is to be low in conscientiousness. This has often caused me trouble with loved ones who are higher in conscientiousness. How can that be a good thing? Why didn’t God set my natural conscientiousness level a little higher? What was He thinking?
In a move typical of people who are high in openness but low in conscientiousness, I was lost in my thoughts rather than paying close attention. But then, the topic of the Sunday School lesson abruptly broke in upon my consciousness.
He loves me.
He loves me, and He made me, and, for some reason, He chose to make a person who is a bit low in conscientiousness. In fact, He chose to make people with all different Big Five factory settings. Ergo, all of these factory settings are by design. He must think we need all kinds.
Ergo, He likes your settings. Even if someone else doesn’t. Even if no one else does.
That’s a lot less clickbaity, but the
first paragraph is still pretty damning for Google:
On Monday, Motherboard re-published a memo written by a Google employee with the title, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why.” First posted on an internal message board, it details a now-departing employee’s allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The memo writer alleges that a manager made sexist and derogatory remarks about a coworker who might have been pregnant before retaliating following a related HR complaint. When the memo writer herself became pregnant, she says things got even worse.
find out what these sexist and derogatory things were. I am going to give you
my take on this article, and you are welcome to click on the link, read it
yourself, and draw you own conclusions.
The writer of this latest viral memo … was a manager at Google when she says her own manager “started making inappropriate comments” about a member of her team, “including that the Googler was likely pregnant again and was overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant.”
Hmm, the third party was “overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant?” Does that sound like a thing that ever happens? Do you suppose it’s ever happened before? Oh, yes, it must have happened, to this very person, because the manager said the Googler was “likely pregnant again.” So perhaps the manager is speaking from direct, even recent personal experience. And perhaps his or her words are, in some sense, true.
It is well known to all people with a brain that many women become emotional and forgetful when pregnant. We also become easily fatigued. This could make us difficult to work with, especially in a high-pressure, fast-moving, competitive work environment.
This is not a slam on women. Pregnancy is a major life event. It drains the energy from your body, often makes you physically miserable, and messes with your hormones and, yes, your emotions something fierce. It is, in fact, a full-time job. It would be surprising if such a major physiological event weren’t.
She continues, “My manager also discussed this person’s likely pregnancy-related mental health struggles and how it’s difficult because, ‘you can’t touch employees after they disclose such things.’” The author felt her manager was encouraging her “to manage the member of my staff off of the team.”
She says she then reached out to HR with a complaint and “almost immediately” found that her manager’s “demeanor towards me changed, and drastically.” The employee alleges “months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming,” as well as the manager “sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers” and “actively interviewing candidates to replace me.”
Wait a minute. Her? Her??? The evil, pregnancy-retaliating manager is a woman??? Don’t you think this might be relevant? Yes, yes, I know that women can be sexist against other women too, but given what we’ve already heard, I can’t help but think there might be more going on here. Like maybe this female manager wasn’t looking forward to having to manage an emotionally unstable employee, and now she finds out she’s got another direct report who is complaining to HR, calling her a sexist, over remarks she made in an unguarded moment. Remarks which, perhaps, she expected that another woman would understand. Clearly, she was mistaken.
At this point, I no longer trust the author of the memo accurately to describe her manager’s behavior.
After complaining again to HR, the employee says she was told there was “no evidence of retaliation.” Then, she says she was encouraged, and agreed, to find a role on another team, but was told that she wouldn’t be able to manage her new team “until after returning from maternity leave for fear that my maternity leave might ‘stress the team’ and ‘rock the boat.’”
leave might stress the team and rock the boat? You mean if the team manager had to leave for several months?
Nah, that doesn’t sound at all likely.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
Then, she writes, she was diagnosed with “a pregnancy-related condition that was life-threatening” to both her and her baby, and which would require an early maternity leave and bedrest. She relayed this to her new manager, who then allegedly told her that “she had just listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bedrest” and shared a personal story about how she had personally ignored her doctor’s bedrest order while pregnant herself. “My manager then emphasized in this same meeting that a management role was no longer guaranteed upon my return from maternity leave, and that she supported my interviewing for other roles at Google,” she writes.
When she later wrote her manager announcing that she was “experiencing concerning symptoms” and would likely be starting her leave, she says she received back “an angry email letting me know I wasn’t meeting the expectations of someone at my level, nor meeting the expectations of a manager.”
OK. It’s time for some reality here. Maybe, just maybe, the childbearing years do not mix well with building a high-powered, team-managing career at Google. Maybe this is the elephant in the room that is being ignored by everyone in this story, heroes and villains alike.
Obviously it is not good to discourage a pregnant
woman with a life-threatening condition from going on bedrest when her doctor
has recommended it. Nor is it good to tell someone else how to care for their
own health problems based on your own personal experience. What could be causing all this bad, arguably
sexist (though I prefer the term anti-pregnancy) behavior from another woman?
Maybe it’s the cultural expectation that prenancy is not a big deal and should not in any way affect a woman’s ability to “meet the expectations of a manager.” Which, of course, it is and it does.
This is a subset of the bigger problem of wanting to pretend that men and women are exactly the same and should behave and been seen as exactly the same at all times. Or, rather than being a subset, this is more like the real road test of that idea. Can women behave and perform exactly the same as men … even when pregnant? Even when on bedrest? And if they can’t, does this make them inferior? And if you say they can’t, does this make you anti-woman?
One Google employee who dared to say “men and women are not the same” was James Damore. Adding insult to injury, he is now used in this article as an example of sexist attitudes within Google.
Then-engineer James Damore wrote a memo arguing against the company’s diversity efforts on the scientifically inaccurate grounds that women are less competent in the field of technology than men.
The only part of that sentence that is accurate is the phrase “then-engineer.” That’s because Damore lost his job for writing the infamous memo. But the way the article quotes him is extremely misleading. He did not “argue against the company’s diversity efforts.” He suggested that there might be a natural limit to the number of women Google was able to recruit and retain. He didn’t say that “women are less competent in the field of tech,” at least not that all women are. He said that, in general, women tend to be less drawn to that field. This is not “scientifically inaccurate.” It’s extremely well-documented. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, in countries where people are allowed the maximum freedom to choose their careers, women tend to gravitate toward the helping professions and men tend to gravitate toward the hard sciences.
What is scientifically inaccurate is the idea that women and men are exactly the same in mind and body, that pregnancy is a minor exception to this sacred truth, and that in the service of “equality,” pregnancy should at all costs be minimized, ignored, and if possible avoided altogether.
Certainly, goes the reigning orthodoxy, pregnancy shouldn’t be a big deal, shouldn’t change a woman’s work performance or lifestyle in any major way. And if it does, somebody is due for some blame. Usually it’s the pregnant or newborn-having career woman, who “needs to figure out how to balance work and family” (translation: how to care for an infant without any help and without anyone else ever having to see or hear about the infant). Occasionally, as in this article, the person who gets blamed is the woman’s manager, who dares to point out that her childbearing might have some impact on what she’s able to do at work.
People are flawed and sinful, and often, when we are blamed for something, it is at least partially justified. Not in this case. In this case, people are being blamed for not being able to enact a completely false picture of reality.
Expecting women to combine their child-bearing years with their prime career-building years is unfair to everybody. As we see in this article, it puts managers, co-workers, and teams in a bad position. It also, of course, puts the young moms in a bad position, guaranteeing them a bad experience at work and robbing them of the ability to focus on their bodies and their babies during those childbearing years.
I’m not trying to guilt anybody here. Some young moms need to work so the family can get by. I get that. But we need to stop insisting that this arrangement is desirable for everyone … no big deal … easy … possible without something having to give, something having to suffer. Until we stop pretending, we’ll continue demonizing people (like the poor manager in the story above) rather than question the flawed doctrine. That attitude, and not James Damore, is the real sexism.
ESTPs are observant, energetic, and crude. David Keirsey, in his book Please Understand Me II, calls them Promoters:
Witty, clever, and fun, they live with a theatrical flourish … Promoters have a knack for knowing where the action is. ESTPs have a hearty appetite for the finer things in life … Promoters are so engaging with people that they might seem to possess an unusual amount of empathy, when in fact this is not the case. Rather, they are uncanny at reading people’s faces and observing their body language … ESTPs keep their eyes on their audience, and with nerves of steel they will use this information to achieve the ends they have in mind – which is to sell the customer in some way. Promoters can be hard-nosed utilitarians … they can keep their cool in crises and operate freely … although they ordinarily have little patience with following through and mopping up.
Keirsey, Please Understand Me II, pp. 64 – 65
How Did This Guy Get in The Story?
I’m an INFP. I have little natural sympathy for this type. Thus, I didn’t set out to write an ESTP character. But I also didn’t set out to write a likeable character, which perhaps helped open the door to a temperament I wouldn’t normally consider.
When I began writing the novel, I only knew that Nimri was smart, strong, snobbish, and involved in building the Tower of Babel (the ultimate project to promote). I knew I was going to put him in a difficult situation where he’d be humbled and have a chance at redemption. Once I put him in this situation (paraplegic, being cared for by people he once looked down upon, and unable to speak their language), ESTP is the personality that naturally emerged.
At first, Nimri behaves like a jerk, which is what we would expect of anyone in such a situation but especially of this personality type. He first yells at his rescuers and attempts to order them around even though they can’t understand him. He then falls silent and begins to observe them. Later, he tries to assault one of their young women, at which point they start treating him like a prisoner. (ESTPs, remember, are crude and utilitarian.)
At this point, Nimri’s Promoter
gifts kick in and start to serve him well.
He is energetic and adaptable, so instead of brooding, he starts a diary
and occupies himself with things like arm exercises. His ability to read people’s body language
helps him as he observes his captors and begins to figure out their names and
who is related to whom. When he eventually picks up a little of their language,
he begins joking with them. His concrete
nature helps him find tasks he can do, such as music and weaving.
By the end of his time with his
captors, Nimri does find redemption … but not by turning into an INFP. Instead, the positive aspects of his Promoter
personality start to shine. He becomes
what you might call a “good” ESTP. Still
a source of energy, but energy that’s a bit more positive. Red Kryptonite.
Yet whether using his talents poorly or well, Nimri is a disruptive force in the story.
Some People Are Like That
Perhaps you know a person like
this. Some people need only enter a room
– or just walk by it – and chaos immediately breaks out. Disruption follows in their wake. They don’t even need to do anything (although
they usually do). In Nimri’s case, he
causes a stir even when sitting imprisoned in his room not talking to anyone.
And We Need Them
Though I started out to write Nimri
as an unlikeable character in need of redemption (as are we all), I actually
needed his maddening nature more than I realized. A story needs a disruptive force to keep
things moving. Jordan Peterson would
say, speaking his language of archetypes, that we need a balance between the
forces of order and the forces of chaos.
Too much chaos and society falls apart, but too much order can be
stifling, enslaving. And so in a
novel. You need a steady source of
trouble or nothing will happen in your story.
(By the way, Peterson relies
heavily on Jung for his archetypes. Concidentally, the MBTI is also derived –
distantly – from Jung’s work. I realize
there are problems with the MBTI and there would certainly be problems with
trying to draw solely on Jung for your complete philosophy of life. However, both are useful when talking about
The disruptive force in a story is often the villain. It can be that character that readers love to hate. Or it could be something more abstract, like Nature. In some stories of the sane-man-in-a-crazy-world variety, almost all the characters are colorful and disruptive, and only the protagonist is vainly trying to hold things in order. This is true of Dave Barry’s novels, of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and of the TV series King of the Hill (all of them comedies). It’s a little more difficult if you’re writing a “serious” novel and wish to have a number of admirable characters. You can’t make them all admirable, or no one will cause trouble, and then where will you be? Still, stories can accommodate more than one disruptor. It’s often best if you have several, including some outside force and one or more characters closer to home. In Beowulf, Grendel is the monster but Beowulf himself disrupts Hrothgar’s court by his arrival, and he is also challenged by Hrothgar’s designated mocker.
What’s a favorite story of yours and who is the disruptor in it?
When I thought about this question,
I realized that such coincidences happen to me regularly. This is especially strange because I don’t believe in them.
In fiction, I expect thematic
unity. If coincidences happen, I expect
there to be a good narrative reason for them and I expect them to move the
story forward. But this is not fiction,
this is real life. Coincidences don’t
happen, and events don’t organize themselves according to theme.
Except that they do, and … they do.
I have come up with the following handy taxonomy of weird coincidences for your enjoyment. Afterward, we’ll talk about possible causes.
1. Striking But Trivial
Often, like BlackSheep’s example
with the pizza, coincidences might be striking but they seem trivial and they
lead nowhere in particular.
For example, once I was passing
through Yellowstone and I knew I’d be seeing
my sister soon. On a whim, I bought her
a stuffed raccoon. There was absolutely
no history involving raccoons between her and me; I just thought it was cute.
When I saw my sister, I said to
her, “I have a gift for you in the car.”
And she said, “Is it a raccoon?”
You can’t tell me that wasn’t
Nor could you convince me that it
means anything. (Other than that maybe my sister is a mind reader. But why did she read my mind about that, and
not about much bigger things that I’d rather have had her instantly understand?
2. Foreshadowing Life Events
Perhaps, while reading above, you
objected to the phrase “trivial.” “How
can we know which events are trivial?”
you ask. Well, good point. Sometimes a seemingly minor coincidence looks
more significant (though still kind of baffling) in retrospect because of how
things turn out.
When I was young and eligible, I
met this guy. He heard I was from Idaho (a relatively
rural state with a relatively low population).
He said, “Oh, you’re from Idaho? Do you know ____________?”
And just as I was preparing to say,
“Not all Idahoans know one another, you know,” he said the name.
And it was of a writer I admired and had actually met.
Furthermore, I ended up marrying
the guy who asked the question.
And his first name is the same as
Now, the tricky thing about these
foreshadowing coincidences is this. They
don’t tell you as much as you’d think.
They don’t serve very well as
guidance from God, at least not if they are your sole source of it, because
they don’t happen often enough to guide you through every important decision in
They are not a substitute for
wisdom. You still have to take into
account Reasons. I’d’ve been a fool to
have married the guy on the spot.
Sometimes these coincidences do,
along with a host of other factors, seem to confirm you are taking the right
path. But even then, it is possible to start down the right path and at the
same time be making serious mistakes that will come back to bite you
later. And the stupid coincidences don’t
give you any warning about your blind spots.
At least not in any form that you can use.
So what are these foreshadowings
for? I don’t know. Perhaps their occurrence is not intended but
is more of a natural law analogous to the laws of physics … “Future events cast
backward shadows” or something like that.
But that’s getting into causes, and I’m getting ahead of myself.
3. When a Theme Emerges (over a short period of time)
This is when your attention keeps
getting drawn to a particular theme, but it’s coming from different sources
that are unrelated to each other. For
example, you are reading (or writing) a novel that has a particular theme, and
then you also hear a radio broadcast on the same topic, and a friend also
brings up the theme over lunch.
Granted, you are the missing link between all of these. Maybe the reason the theme keeps coming up is
that you keep bringing it up, or seeking it out. But I think we’ve all had experiences where
the theme keeps pursuing us, as it were, from the outside.
Christians will tell you that this
happens a lot with Scripture. The Bible
has a lot of verses and a lot of themes, as anyone who studies it
knows. So it does seem striking when,
say, you have been memorizing a passage with your kids one week, and then on that
Sunday, the sermon includes a quote from that
very verse. But this happens often.
The Psalms, by the way, are great for this. There are 150 Psalms, most of them short. This means that if you read five a day, you can read through all of them in a 30-day month (skipping most of Psalm 119, the really long one). And I can tell you that if you do this, on about 25 days of that month (or possibly all 30), one of the Psalms you read will have a direct bearing on a situation you are in. And this is not because the Psalms are filled with a lot of vague language that could be applied to anything. I mean, some of them are worship, some are laments, some are imprecatory (calling down vengeance on one’s enemies), some are historical or prophetic. Many are cries for help. But these different types are not evenly distributed throughout the book in such a way that you’d be sure every day to get one of each.
4. When People Become Magnets for Certain Events
This can be a really tragic
one. We’ve all heard anecdotally that
once someone is struck by lightning and survives, they are more likely to get
struck again – and again. I don’t know
whether that’s been verified, but I do
know of two families each of whom experienced two or more horrible,
life-changing car crashes within a few years.
And it wasn’t because they were drunk driving or anything like that. And
they lived in rural, non-high-traffic areas.
You often hear about this
phenomenon in cases where someone repeatedly runs into abusive situations –
say, at home, then in another home, then at church, then at work. Or at job after job. The temptation is to seek the reason for this
recurrence in the behavior of the victim: to say “She keeps marrying the same
kind of guy” or “He has problems with authority.” And there might be something to that,
sometimes, sure. But after looking at
the families with the car crashes, I think there might be more going on. It’s as if there is such a thing as a luck
switch, and God help you if yours gets flipped in the wrong direction.
Unfortunately, all the examples I
could think of for people being “event magnets” were bad ones. Does anyone know of a case where a particular
person seemed to attract a particular kind of event that was either good,
neutral, or just funny?
Causes for Weird Coincidences
Ok, now back to the question asked
“Do you think the universe reveals things to us serendipitously, or are the things that happen to us just due to mathematical chance?”
Mathematical Odds plus Pattern Recognition
We all know that the human mind is
predisposed to detect patterns. This is
useful, as patterns occur in the actual world and we couldn’t act if we
couldn’t detect them. In fact, experts on culture crossing will tell you that
it is difficult to really see an object unless you know what you are looking
at, and it is difficult to repeat back a string of sounds unless you know what
they mean. Our very perception is tied
up with patterns. We literally can’t
function without them.
But equally, we all know that this urge to detect patterns is so strong that it sometimes leads us astray. Every pattern that we perceive also forces us to ignore data that don’t fit it. Everyone has heard of Confirmation Bias. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that even scientists, supposedly very data-driven, will not give up on a previous theory unless they have been presented with a compelling alternative. In other words, we’re not willing to say “there’s no pattern here” once we have seen one. Instead, we will refuse to abandon a previous pattern unless there is a new one for us to hang our data on.
In some cases, our expectation of a
pattern will actually cause us to perceive data that isn’t there, simply
because it fits the pattern. This is
especially true when interpreting our spouse’s tone of voice.
I think pattern recognition plus mathematical odds might account for some of the weird coincidences we’ve discussed, particularly the thematic ones. Once our minds have been awakened to a topic, we start to notice it more often, or even read it into things that are only tangentially related to it. Perhaps such “coincidences” were happening around us before, but we didn’t perceive them.
Pattern Recognition Ain’t the Villain, Though
However, let’s not go crazy with
assuming that pattern recognition can only
serve to deceive us as to the nature of the world. It can start to sound like this whenever
people get talking about Confirmation Bias.
It’s as if this weird quirk of the human mind keeps us from seeing the
world “as it really is.” But actually,
pattern recognition often helps us to
perceive things, as when we notice that our kid is always grumpier when he’s
hungry or that the sun always rises in the East. Just because the drive to perceive patterns
sometimes deceives us, does not mean that the world does not operate according
to regular rules. It is not a completely
random world we live in. So, our
pattern-recognizing minds are not alien to this world, but are designed to
operate well within it.
Also, despite our strong predisposition to see only what we expect and understand, we also have minds that are designed to meet and grapple with the unknown. (Jordan Peterson has a lot to say about this. According to him, the left brain basically handles the known, and the right brain the unknown.) We know that we are capable of learning surprising new facts, and sometimes we even seek out this experience. In fact, that is almost the definition of the “weird” in “weird coincidences.”
The Universe is Mind, Not Matter
Let’s review two facts: our minds are capable of moving out into the unknown, and our minds are predisposed to seek patterns. This opens up the possibility that our experiences, including weird coincidences, might represent previously unknown patterns. That is, patterns not coming from our own minds but from somewhere else.
Now, this will be hard to swallow
if you believe that the only real thing is matter. On this view, all of matter is controlled by
random movements at the quantum level. On
this view, the universe really is a random place and patterns are not real
EXCEPT in the human mind.
All of us who have received a modern Western education believe that at some level. That’s why I said above that coincidences happen to me “even though I don’t believe in them.” I got a normal public-school education, so there are some materialist assumptions baked into my thinking.
So that’s one level of our thought.
But on another level, none of us
really believe the materialist/randomness/mathematical odds explanation. We know
that minds are real. This is confirmed
by our daily experience.
If this is a universe in which
human minds exist, then it must be a universe in which mind is a real
thing. Therefore patterns are real. Therefore themes are real. Even if they exist “only” in human minds,
they are still real. They are in the
I would go so far as to say that
the basic unit of reality is not molecules, but mind. (That alliterates, which is why I chose it
rather than “not atoms but mind” or “not quarks but mind.” Or whatever tinier thing down from quarks has
since been discovered.)
In the video below, you can see Stephen Meyer make this case to Ben Shapiro. (It’s an hour long, but well worth watching. If you don’t have the time, he makes his point about mind in the teaser in the first few seconds of the video.) Our genes are, essentially, extensive libraries of information, digitally coded. In all our experience, nothing has ever produced a digitally coded message – let alone a library’s worth of messages – except for a mind.
Now, Christians would say that the ultimate mind – the Mind behind all minds – the medium in which the universe exists – is the Mind of God. I think, for many different reasons, that this is a better explanation than trying to say that “the universe” itself has some kind of emergent mind. But for the purposes of our discussion about coincidences, it’s doesn’t really matter whether you call the Mind God. It’s enough that you accept that mind is a real feature of the universe.
Because if you accept that, then it follows that embedded in the universe itself could be things like: themes, goals, purposes, design, patterns, intent. Stories. Maybe even jokes, which is what some of these weird coincidences resemble more than anything.
I said above, “This is real life, not a novel.” But – surprise! – real life is actually a lot like a novel after all. It has mind and meaning. It might even be one big story, too big for us to perceive. So maybe that’s why things sometimes happen to us that, if you saw them in a movie, you wouldn’t believe them.
Most books have a gross or horrifying part. When I was a kid, I disliked these parts. (I was an impressionable child. I had nightmares for what seemed like months after someone told me the story of how Odysseus used a heated log to poke out the cyclops’s eye.)
The ew! moments in books are sometimes all that people remember about them. I can remember a few occasions when someone would see me reading a book and say, “Ew, that’s the book where _________ happens.” And in the blank was always the most disgusting incident, which usually was just an aside and wasn’t even a major part of the plot. I guess you could say that grossness is salient.
Why Authors Include Ew! Moments
I never thought I’d include ew! moments in my own novels, but lo and behold, they have quite a few of them. It’s a matter of simple realism. My plots deal with sometimes desperate survival situations. They include death and birth (a lot of births). One of the characters is paraplegic, which comes with its own indignities. I try to handle any necessary grossness tastefully, but I don’t skip it entirely, because I don’t want to romanticize anything … not parenthood, not paralysis, not the nomadic lifestyle. Also, it is through these horrifying and humbling incidents that the characters grow. If I skipped all that, I’d be skipping the whole story.
It turns out that grossness is a part of life. We might not want to dwell on it, but we can’t completely avoid it either. And this is true for any book that aspires to being realistic.
Fantasy author Neil Gaiman titled his 2015 short story collection Trigger Warning for the following reason:
We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what others see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me: stories which contained helplessness, in which people were embarrassed, or mutilated, in which adults were made vulnerable and parents could be of no assistance. They troubled me … but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could. (page xiii)
Ew! Levels Are Culturally Determined
How much ew! to include in fiction is a convention that has changed over the years. One hundred fifty years ago, the standard was basically … none. Take The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I adore this book. It paints a perfect picture of the horror that results when we are enslaved to sin … whether through addiction to a substance or to some aspect of our own sin nature. (In Dr. Jekyll’s case, it’s literally both.) The horror in this book does not come from any gross-out scenes. It comes from the progressive loss of self-control and the dawning realization that you are the monster. However, I can think of one part of the story where Robert Louis Stevenson’s discretion causes some confusion. Dr. Jekyll mentions that his “pleasures” were “undignified” and that he created Hyde as a way to allow himself to indulge his pleasures without Dr. Jekyll suffering any “indignity.” As a modern reader, it’s not immediately obvious to me what this means. My guess is that Dr. Jekyll had started out frequenting music halls and had progressed to brothels. But I don’t know, because he is too dignified to tell us. Perhaps Victorian readers would immediately have known what was meant by “undignified pleasures.”
Nowadays, obviously, there are entire genres dedicated to ew!. Of course this is just as misguided as the Victorian standard. Grossness is a part of life and so must be included. But it’s not the main story.
It’s Good for Ew!
How much ew! to include in your reading is a personal decision. I can tolerate more of it now than when I was younger, and that’s as it should be. For example, it was just within the last few years that I read Stephen King’s Misery. I deliberately avoided it before because I didn’t think I could handle the horror at the time. I still think that was a good decision. The story is most famous for the scene where the rabid fan, Annie, amputates the author’s leg at the ankle. But as you might expect, the real horror in the story does not come from that scene alone, but from the increasingly complete picture we get of Annie’s mind. And the story is not only about horror. It’s about literary snobbery (really!), the creative process, the relationships readers have with books and that authors have with readers. But I doubt I could have appreciated all of those themes (or even the glimpses of Annie’s mind) if I had read it as a younger person.
Having said that, there was one scene in Misery, worse even than the amputation scene, which I skipped as soon as I realized what was coming. You gotta know your limits. You do not have any obligation to read every horrifying scene that is out there.
Yet despite that know your limits is a good rule, it has sometimes been the cringiest scenes in books that have done me the most good. Yes, even moral good. They bring home to the reader the details of what some people have to live through (such as sexual assault in Pillars of the Earth or leprosy in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever), thereby increasing empathy. For those of us fortunate enough not to have grown up suffering war, crime, or abuse, our first encounter with the reality of these things was probably through books.
Of course, some horrors are entirely fictional (vampires, zombies, aliens, portals to hell). Yet even these are telling us something that is in some sense true about the world. There really are evil spiritual powers, and they really do seek to affect human history, and sometimes it can get very bad. In the case of these fictional or metaphorical horrors, reading about them inoculates the reader against the shock of that particular thing. Hopefully we will never encounter it in exactly that form, but we are going to come up against the concept – and the power – again.
It is a wonderful thing to be able to encounter a particular horror for the first time in the context of solitary reading, where you have some space and time on your own to be shocked by it, go back and re-read it, meditate on it, and ultimately, to face that this is part of reality. And maybe to go for help.
Here is Jordan Peterson making a similar point about why you should invite Maleficent to your child’s christening:
Now, read the comments section at your own risk. It could really get away from us if people start telling their own ew! stories.