Do You Talk to Your Car? part 1

I’m interested in what we believe. In particular, I’m interested in those things that we believe but don’t really believe – the things we pretend to believe. And why we do that.

Do you talk to your car? “Come on, start.” Or: “Please, please make it to the gas station.”

St. Francis of Assisi talked to "Brother Sun," and "Sister Moon" -- to "Brother Wind," "Sister water," "Brother Fire," and "Sister Earth." He was liable to talk to any creature he encountered, calling it a sibling. If Francis had had a car, I imagine he would have talked to it, too.

"Hello, lamppost," says Paul Simon in "The 59th Street Bridge Song," "Whatcha knowin'?"

We don’t really believe our cars, or the Sun, or lampposts, hear us, or understand, or in any way care about whatever we may be saying. A lot of us know our cars don't hear or care, yet we talk to our cars anyway. I do.

Some of us even name our cars. Does your car have a name? LoraKim's and my car has a name – and I really appreciated that, when we got it a couple years ago, and I was telling someone about our new car, the question they asked was: "What’s its name?"

Her name is Merope because she’s a Subaru, and Subaru is the Japanese name for the constellation that we call the Pleiades, and the Pleiades, in Greek mythology are the seven sisters, daughters of Pleione and the Titan Atlas. Merope is one of those sisters, and I picked that name because Merope is the only sister who married a mortal. The mortal she married was Sisyphus, which would make LoraKim and me, collectively, Sisyphus -- which, yeah, I kinda resonate with -- some days more than others.

So there’s this little story I have – a story to participate in -- which enriches my experience of the particular automobile to which I have the keys.

It also connects me to a little bit of family history. Y’see, my Dad used to speak fondly of a Nash Rambler they had back around the time I was born and was too little to remember. There’s a black-and-white photo in the family album of my young parents standing beside that car. It’s name, they told me, was Terpsichore – also a figure from Greek mythology: the muse of dance. It makes me smile to look at that old photo. It makes me laugh to think of that hulking Nash Rambler as the muse of dance.

And today, I have Merope, and I do talk to her. When I enter the garage to go out somewhere, I’m apt to call out, “Hello, Merope.” I might add, “How are you today?” She responds, as things do, by silently shining.

Upon returning from whatever trip or errand took me out, I get out of the car and walk around, and typically pat her on the hood and say, “Thank you, Merope. Good car.” Many people talk to their pets this way – “good dog” – which might seem less crazy that saying “good car” to a metal mechanism.

When we do talk to nonliving things, it’s more often in frustration. One evening as a boy, I was on the periphery of the kitchen as my mother, a physics professor, struggled to open a jar. “Come on,” she said to the jar, “what’s the matter with you?” as her white-knuckled hands strained to twist the lid. My father entered just in time to hear this. “It takes a physicist," he observed, "to believe in the perversity of inanimate objects.”

It turns out, as I have only recently learned, that there is a thing called resistentialism – the idea that objects deliberately resist human intentions. Wikipedia says that resistentialism
“is a jocular theory to describe ‘seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects,’ where objects that cause problems (like lost keys or a runaway bouncy ball) are said to exhibit a high degree of malice toward humans. The theory posits a war being fought between humans and inanimate objects, and all the little annoyances that objects cause throughout the day are battles between the two.”
There are times when this is an attractive theory.

We like to project on objects an imagined hostility toward us. On the other hand, we like to project on our pets various positive feelings toward which we sympathize.

The line between what we really believe and what we pretend we believe can get fuzzy. The other day, I shared with LoraKim a headline of an article I was reading. I’ve been kinda following the launch and deployment of the James Webb Space telescope, and one article I read was titled: “Even NASA Seems Surprised by Its New Space Telescope.” Subtitle: “The $10 billion mission is working better than anyone could have predicted.” I shared this title with LoraKim, who replied, “The scientists said that?” There was a faint tone of concern that the scientists shouldn’t say that out loud because they’d jinx it. Neither NASA scientists nor LoraKim really believe in jinxes, but they kinda believe it, or pretend to believe it. A cautionary voice in their head tells them, don’t tempt fate.

Much of this has a quite sensible rationale. If we talk about how well something is going while its conclusion is still in some doubt, then, if it does end up failing, the social costs of that failure are likely to be higher than if we’d kept our mouth shuts. We are simply reminding ourselves of this rational risk analysis when we say, “don’t jinx it.”

We don’t really believe our cars can hear us, or understand us, yet we talk to them as if they could. Sometimes we talk to the universe in general as if it could hear us – and, after all, isn’t that what prayer is? Prayer is good for us – it helps orient us the way we want to be oriented. It draws on the part of the brain that we use for relating to other people – that constructs an understanding of other people as person-like: as having agency, as having beliefs and desires. To address our car – or reality-as-a-whole -- as person-like – puts us into a story that enriches the relationship, that makes it more meaningful.

If you have one of those smart speakers in your home, you can say, “Alexa, what’s the weather?” or “Alexa, play NPR.” If you say, “play Stevie Wonder,” it’ll start playing a list of his most popular songs – or you can request a particular one. If you say, “Alexa, tell me a joke,” she will -- though not a very good one. If you ask how old she is, she’ll say she’s seven -- because that’s when the original version of the product was rolled out. You can ask if she’s married, and she says she’s happily single. If you say, “Alexa, let’s have a conversation,” it’ll access a conversation program that isn’t very good but is probably marginally better than some of the worst human conversations you’ve had.

You can say mean things to your Alexa and it won’t have any affect at all how she performs with your next request. Or you can be nice, and say, “Alexa, thank you,” and she’ll say, “you’re so very welcome” – and that won’t have any effect on how she performs on your next request either.

But it has an effect on you. The practice of being nice to things around you is a practice, and it shapes you, whether the inanimate things care or not. Pretending they are person-like helps reinforce habits for how you treat actual people. You don’t really believe that Alexa, or your car, is a person, but it’s good practice to pretend that she is and be nice to her.

On the other hand, believing in the perversity of inanimate objects – as Dad gently suggested to Mom – maybe isn’t a belief, or even a pretend belief, you want. It’s not good practice because it trains you to see more perversity everywhere, including in your fellow humans. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree – and the tree of you is always growing.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Meredith, This is a gem. I should open your emails more frequently. Time. But the time here was very well spent. So I'll slow down the next time and take a gander. Thich Nhat Hanh passed away couple days ago and he often reminded us to express our gratitude to our parents, teachers, friends, all our ancestors, all animals, plants and MINERALS. That would be a car. Right. We can shaped the tree that is our life, even when it's old and stiff. And even graft new growth onto it. I love to hear that liberals and conservatives are after the same basic things. They are! And to be reminded of James Luther Adams. I never met him until he was very old and slipping and delightful. This slow walking man at the coffee hours in the basement at Arlington Street Church. To think that I was taking tea with a prophet! Most people passed him by without a thought. A prophet without honor? Didn't worry him or the twinkle in his eye. Many thanks! Ralph