The Three Oughts

TV Repair

Jerry worked at a tech help center. He got a call from an irate Bob, who had bought a television and was upset that the television wasn’t showing colors.

Jerry went over to look at the television and found that it was a very old television. He said, “this is a black and white television. It’s not built to show color.”

“That isn’t right,” Bob said. “I think this television ought to show color.”

“That’s nonsense,” said Jerry. “This television is in perfect working order, and probably a worthwhile antique too. I can show you how it’s built on the inside. There is no possible way for this to display color.”

But Bob was very upset. “I want to see color and I think the television ought to show it to me.”

“Isn’t that more about yourself than the television?” Jerry said. “If you say the television ought to be different, you’re really saying that you want something the television isn’t giving you. The television is operating perfectly well according to the laws of physics and causality, I don’t know what more you want out of it. You can rebuild it if you want, or buy a new television.”

“But you want me to accept the fact this television ought to be black and white, not color! If I do that, just accept, then I would do nothing, I wouldn’t rebuild it or buy a new television. I have to believe that this television is wrong if I’m going to do anything about it.”

Jerry sighed as he started to pack up his things. “We are capable of taking action without feeling like we must correct some offense with the world. Buying a new television doesn’t have to be any different.”

Alice and Carl

Alice loved Carl. Carl was wonderful, but not perfect. He got upset whenever he was interrupted in conversation. Sometimes he would insult people for the sake of laughs. Sometimes he would leave the toilet seat up.

Alice, while she got along with Carl well otherwise, was very upset by the things he did. She believed he ought not do them, and that he was behaving unethically, and she told him so.
Alice married Carl, and after many decades, she began to understand – not just in a rote psychological way, but in a deep, empathetic way – why he behaved like this. Carl had a poor upbringing which had convinced him, at a young age, that he was worthless. Fear of abandonment underwrote everything he said. He wanted love, but didn’t know how to receive it.

Eventually, when Carl insulted Alice, Alice saw not just the insult, but also the network of motivations that pushed the insult to the surface.

And after this, she did not tell Carl that he was being unethical. She did not tell him that he ought not to insult her. Carl was doing exactly what he was built to be doing. The way she felt had nothing to do with it. Telling him he ‘ought not insult her’ was more about herself than him, really. She just wanted something he wasn’t giving her – affirmation and love. Carl was operating perfectly well according to the laws of physics and causality. What more could she expect from someone?

She told this to her friend Ethel over dinner, and Ethel was skeptical.

“You’re accepting the fact that your husband is an asshole – even that he ought to be an asshole, and not a good kind man!” Ethel said. “If you do that, just accept, then you won’t do anything about it, like going to therapy or leaving him. You have to believe that he’s a dick if you’re going to do anything about him.”

Alice sighed as she stirred her coffee. “We are capable of taking action without feeling like we must correct some offense with the world.  Dealing with Carl doesn’t have to be any different.”

Alice ended up divorcing Carl once she felt he caused her more unhappiness than happiness, and she wasn’t angry with him at all.

The Genie

Dan wasn’t who he wanted to be, and he hated it.

He wasn’t handsome enough or witty enough. He was too insecure. He said the wrong thing too much. He wasn’t attractive to women. He drank too much and couldn’t stop. He ran away from his problems instead of facing them. He was lazy and unmotivated. He wasn’t sure how anyone could love him if they got to know who he was, deep down.

Sure, he was functional. He had a social group and made jokes people laughed at and was respected at his job. But at the core, he was dissatisfied with himself, and it manifested in a constant, low-key anxiety that he was doing the wrong thing.

Dan was not who he thought he ought to be. There was a vision in his mind of the “correct Dan,” and he was not it. The discrepancy ate at him.

One day Dan found a genie.

“You can have one wish,” said the genie.

Dan, not being too bright, immediately wished for a million dollars.

The genie shook his head. “No, I don’t give you what you think you want, I give you what you really want.”

The genie reached forward and touched Dan’s head, and in a single glorious second, Dan was granted total self-awareness of every facet of his own mind. When a thought arose, he felt where it had come from, could trace it all the way back to its origin. It was terrifying and painful and beautiful and peaceful all at once.

And Dan understood exactly why he sometimes said the wrong thing, why he thought he wasn’t witty enough, why he was unmotivated, why he drank, why he ran away. It was like he was looking at the inner workings of a television that were firing away in exactly the way they had been programmed to, or like he was looking at someone he had loved for dozens of years.

He watched his own discontent with his life with interest. It didn’t leave – the desires he had were still there – but his anxiety over not being ‘ideal Dan’ dissolved away before the face of Real Dan.

“Huh,” said Dan.

“Do you have the fear,” rumbled the genie, “that if you accept that you ought to be the way you are now, that you will do nothing? That you will cease trying to improve yourself or rid yourself of fault?”

Dan hadn’t really thought of the question because his mind was so flooded with the answer. “No,” he said. “I am capable of taking action without feeling like I must correct some offense in the world. Improving myself doesn’t have to be any different.”

“So if not obligation, why do you seek to improve yourself?”

“Well… what else is there to do?” Dan said.

4 thoughts on “The Three Oughts”

  1. You have a comments section because you are programmed to need what a comments section provides. You can not do otherwise.

  2. But the trouble with this seems to be that whether we consider “broken” or “the natural result of understandable processes” depends on where we draw the boundary. A person’s body is broken, infected, not up to par when they are infected with a bacterium. But if you expand your view to include the whole world, then there’s nothing broken at all—both the person and bacteria play a role in this vast system and there’s nothing inherently good or bad about that.

    So I guess what we call “brokenness” is arbitrary, but it is useful. We can use it as the reason for why we strive to change something. If we accept that everything is natural and understandable, we risk becoming satisfied with any status quo, just because it’s the result of a clockwork universe and there’s nothing we can do to change that.

  3. I just wanted to say I really love this post – I think it really gets at something I’ve been trying to make sense of for years ( – about how to balance “accepting things as they are”, with also sometimes wanting to improve things. I keep coming back to read this post when I feel like I need a reminder that wanting to change things doesn’t have to come from dissatisfaction/anger/etc. Thank you! 🙂

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