Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why Tiger Still Doesn't Get It

"Buddhism teaches that a craving of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught."--Tiger Woods

"If this is true, he's one of the worst Buddhists of all time."--Bill Simmons

A couple of months ago we penned an essay about why Tiger Woods was not happy. Unfortunately, things seem not to have changed much in the interim. Not that we particularly care one way or the other about Tiger's state of mind, but the fact that he chose to invoke the tenets of Buddhism--which closely resemble our outlook--caused us to reflect on his situation once more.

One of the things we have discussed frequently in this blog is the perplexing fact that so many people are willing to go right to the edge of the absurd...but unable to follow through. For example: "Yes, I accept that all is meaningless, but family - that's what really matters." Or: "Material possessions don't matter, but having a robust network of friends is essential to a happy life." Etc.

With that in mind, go back and read Tiger's comment again. The first sentence is...well, we couldn't have said it better ourselves. Indeed, we have often written about this illusory (and counterproductive) search for security. And yet, it is clear from the rest of Tiger's speech that he has simply substituted one set of things that "matter" (his wife and children) for another (cocktail waitresses).

In short, he is falling into the well-laid trap of believing family occupies some special and exalted niche in this purely physical world--that our protective feelings toward relatives come not from evolution and simple biology, but are instead...well, somehow different.

A craving of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security.

It seems pretty clear that Tiger's wife and children exist outside him, so why the double standard? Why do we delude ourselves into believing one set of things (family) is more meaningful than the other (possessions, or even other people not related to us)?

The answer, of course, is that for all our delusions of grandeur, for all the hoping, striving, and achieving we undertake on a daily basis in the vain hope of validating our nebulous and ephemeral self, we remain gene replication machines and nothing more. However, we want so desperately to believe this is not the case that we set up vast, elaborate structures to distract ourselves from our true nature, codified by established (and strictly enforced) social mores.

Think back to why Tiger got in trouble in the first place - he violated the terms of his marriage contract. But so what? As we once noted, the idea that it "matters" whether a spouse has intercourse with another person is merely an idea certain human civilizations have codified, for a variety of reasons. As we put it then, "such beliefs--drilled into us by society--are like religion, in that we accept them wholly and unquestioningly, despite the lack of any logical reason for doing so."

This commitment to family is so hard-wired into our nature that most people are unable to even converse about it. For example, we recently watched an episode of the (often absurd) television show House, in which a character questioned his wife as to why he should care more about his son than about others simply because they are biologically related. His wife looked at him with horror and replied: "Because he's your son!" (We, feeling mischievous, turned to our wife and commented that the patient had a point. We are still awaiting a reply.)

The problem, of course, is that there is no answer, but this concept is so overwhelming to most people that they retreat behind elaborate defenses ("He's your son!) to avoid dealing with it. There is no objective reason to favor one's family over other, unrelated individuals. It is not "better" for Tiger Woods to spend time with his family than with cocktail waitresses. Any and all preferences we think we have are mere manifestations of biological processes and millions of years of evolution, mixed together with our present and past environments.

To clarify: we do indeed have wants and desires, but we recognize their transient and ephemeral nature. We had a wonderful bottle of wine last night, and today we are at work in an office. But we are not wishing we were back enjoying the wine. We are content where we are, with what we are doing. It is this simple insight that continues to elude Tiger Woods.


  1. Interesting as usual. I have one criticism; you're reading much more into Tiger's statements than their context allows for. Remember that he's dealing with a very hairy publicity situation (with his career on the line) simultaneously as he appears to be engaging in self-rumination. If you're a celebrity, other people's opinions of you are important to your celebrity status; people payed Tiger millions of dollars last year because of other people's opinions of him.

    Now, is Tiger unreasonably attached to his celebrity status? Almost undoubtedly, he is, but really I don't know enough about him to judge what sorts of insights he's had or not had.

  2. Ah, celebrity status . . . relying on externalities--others' opinion of one's "self"--to confirm that one "matters" . . .

    Marcus Aurelius would have the ol' proverbial field day with this one!


  3. It looks like we're getting close to discussing the same issues that followed the first Tiger post. It's true: Rick doesn't know Tiger any better than we do. Nor does he know any of the other artists/celebrities that he labels absurd or anti-absurd (yet the critiques of those judgement calls are surprisingly non-existent). All he (and we) have to go off of is the writing/statements/actions of the person being examined.

    It's possible, although highly unlikely, that Tiger is just playing an absurd role and enjoying every minute of it. But Rick is examining his words and actions at face-value (much like the masses do), and filters them through an absurd lens. He then posts his critiques and insights based on those observations, and we're all better for it.


  4. There may be no objective reason to love your son more than a stranger, just like there is no objective reason to enjoy sex more than sticking pins in your arm. However, so what? Everyone sees clearly that everyone else likes their son and sex more than strangers and pins in the arm. If your point is that there is no truly objective reason for family preference, well, shouldn't it be that there is no truly objective reason for ANY preference. And if you asked people if they believe they are justified in disliking pins in the arm they would almost all say yes.


  5. Arthur-

    No real argument here - our point is merely that the recognition of the arbitrary nature of preferences is essential to being truly content. So while you are right that the vast majority of people would prefer sex to needles in the arm, this is (as you say) due entirely to biology rather than one being objectively "better" than the other. Thus, it would be perfectly reasonable (for example) for an alien race to have the exact opposite preferences.

    The larger point is that our elevation of preferences to some higher form of "meaning" is, as Ernest Becker put it, simply an attempt to escape our underlying "creatureliness," rather than accepting that our sex drive (for example) is no more significant than the dung beetle's quest for its next meal.

    So yes, we like sex and dislike needles in the arm. But once we go down the road of believing our life is "better" with more of the former than the latter, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and conflict. Instead, we choose to recognize and accept the underlying limits of our human nature for what they are (i.e., biological and completely subjective), which we have found is very helpful in our ultimate goal of being content with what we have.


  6. Well said. And another aspect you often indirectly highlight is that if we see all these preferences as just preferences, without any of them holding exalted "meaning" status, then we are free to pursue them based only on what they are, without importance.

    But I wonder now, how far does this go? As we just said, certainly giving up concepts of meaning lets preferences morph back to their natural form, which can still be an enlightened natural form, i.e. we can know that we will (usually) be better off ourselves by being more kind (but hopefully without a hard obsession about being better off). The absurd man should be slanted toward the now but still does some things for the future. But how far does this go?

    Each of us can get utility from whatever we get utility from. It doesn't have to be good food, women, and wine. I can get utility out of contemplation, love, building something, or living in the moment. I honestly think (even in its purest form and without being a secret play for immortality) that a few people can get genuine CURRENT utility out of contributing to something they love which will outlive them.

    For example, we can easily imagine someone absurd who: yes he's aware that when he's dead he won't care about how his children are when he's dead, but yet he can care NOW how his children will probably be when he's dead. It doesn't have to be a play for meaning. He can just like and want, now, that his children are likely to be happy when he's gone (after he's gone and while they're still alive that is, and he wouldn't assign big scary super importance to it as even they will only live temporarily). Could this be a natural genuine desire in someone who has squarely faced his mortality just as much as sex and good food can be?

    Same thing about humanity. I can have direct current utility over the likely state of humanity 100 years from now. Not because it is meaningful in any grand sense, but merely because this too is an instinct of mine as a human being, a gene-replicating machine. Is this ridiculous?

    I'm intentionally pushing lines to ask myself where they fall.

    Now, having said all that, I will add that most people don't have such pure living desires, whether they be concerning experience, love, or something that will outlive them. It is usually more: “Am I good or bad, will I be punished or go to heaven? Am I part of something meaningful and important and hence will be spared the final act?” etc. But could there be a person with such a genuine preference, in the moment? Ghandi, historical Jesus, etc.? Or did I take the logic over the line only as an intellectual endeavor while losing the reality?

    Just thinking out loud on a boring Wednesday.


  7. Just a clarification: Woods' first sentence actually was ""Buddhism teaches that a *craving* of things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security." It was originally transcribed by someone to whom the word "craving" was unfamiliar. Strange that nobody seems to have noticed that the sentence made no sense. Maybe in an absurd world nobody expects anything to make sense.

  8. Isn't an absurd world a world where nothing does make sense, and also some things make sense-- simultaneously?

    I bet Tiger Woods didn't have a boring Wednesday. I wonder if he suffers from insomnia?

  9. Although I find the posts on this site interesting and imaginative, many times they are difficult (for me) to follow...however, they do stimulate the brain cells...

  10. I Gilgamesh Judy's comment.


  11. Well, I think the posts are usually pretty clear. The comments, though, can push the envelope, but that's what comments are for. I should probably make mine shorter and a little less enigmatic. Arthur.