Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pirsig and the rigidity of our values

In a very interesting passage of “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”, Robert Pirsig uses a metaphor to describe how the rigidity of our values sometimes can put us in danger:

All kinds of examples from motorcycle maintenance could be given, but the most striking example of value rigidity I can think of is the old South Indian Monkey Trap, which depends on value rigidity for its effectiveness. The trap consists of a hollowed-out coconut chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole. The hole is big enough so that the monkey’s hand can go in, but too small for his fist with rice in it to come out. The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped – by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it. The villagers are coming to get him and take him away. They’re coming closer… closer!... now! What general advice – not specific advice – but what general advice would you give the poor monkey in circumstances like this?

Pirsig would tell the monkey to reconsider his values (in this case, as fast as possible), removing the value rigidity that rates rice above freedom. Perhaps the monkey could get released from the trap with a small amount of rice among his fingers, if he weren’t too greedy and tried to get all the food inside the coconut.

The metaphor of the monkey trap can teach us interesting aspects of many things, including about the exploration of resources in our planet. Instead of a coconut, a monkey and some rice, the real situation is composed by seven billion people “trapped” in the same planet, sharing common resources and having lives that are linked in a certain way. All of us are trying to take some rice, but the amount of food is limited, and we must be intelligent in using it. If we get stuck, worried about taking the biggest quantity of rice we can, we run the risk of dying in the trap.

If we know that the things we do and the way we consume things can be harmful to other people and to the environment, the question is: are we able to reconsider some of our values? If not, why?

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