Great literature transports you into the lives of others to inform you about your own. Take The Grapes of Wrath. I’ll offer you a single scene to illustrate how we rationalize our actions. Tom Joad, the story’s hero, reframes cowardice into practicality, moves from fight to flight, and converts hesitation into wisdom; all with the help of a man who has already rationalized his own diminished life. We rationalize because we must — in order to live comfortably with our motives and our choices.
John Steinbeck’s novel is set in the Dust Bowl era of 1930s Oklahoma. Newly available machines allowed rapid and widespread plowing and cultivation of the native grass: an act of misguided surgery. The grass was essential to bind the earth to the land. When drought came, not only were conditions insufferable, but crops died for lack of moisture. The ground became unmoored and simply blew away. In some areas this “worst hard time” persisted for eight years. Dust storms blackened the sky. The fine dark particles invaded farm houses, killed animals, and impaired breathing. Visibility might be reduced to a few feet on a given day. The dust-occluded air produced occasional darkness as far away as New York City.
Tom Joad is a young man just released on parole after four years in McAlester prison. He killed a neighbor who attacked him in a bar fight. Tom and two acquaintances are on the land once occupied by his family. The Joads were evicted in a bank foreclosure. The men notice a police car coming to investigate.
Muley, one of the acquaintances, is an older man who experienced the merciless attitude of the bankers, their agents, and the law enforcement officers in evicting most everyone in the area while Tom was in prison. He and Tom talk about the vehicle heading in their direction:
TOM: We ain’t doin’ no harm. We’ll jus’ set here. We ain’t doin, nothin’.
MULEY: We’re doin’ somepin jus’ bein’ here. We’re tresspassin’. We can’t stay. They been tryin’ to catch me for two months. Now you look. If that’s a car comin’ we go out in the cotton an’ lay down.
TOM: What’s come over you, Muley. You was’nt never no run-an’-hide fella. You was mean.
Muley agrees with Tom that he is not the same man he was. Changing conditions changed him. He knows Tom’s nature is to fight, especially on the land Tom grew up on. Muley also reminds Tom of his parole. Any “trouble” and he will be sent back to prison.
TOM: You’re talkin’ sense. Ever’ word you say is sense. But, Jesus, I hate to get pushed around! I lots rather take a sock at Willy.
MULEY: He got a gun. … He’ll use it cause he’s a deputy. Then he either got to kill you or you got to get his gun away an’ kill him. Come on Tommy. You can easy tell yourself you’re foolin’ them lyin’ out (in the cotton) like that. An’ it all just amounts to what you tell yourself.”
Indeed. Tom follows Muley’s advice to hide from the police rather than confront anyone.
As with other (mostly unconscious) life strategies, the way we explain our behavior to ourselves can help or harm. Some of us automatically rationalize so many choices we lose touch with who we are and how we hurt ourselves and our fellow man. Others reflexively come to unnecessary and unflattering conclusions about their deeds. They blame themselves and interpret events in a self-deprecating fashion. In effect, each of us has our own internal “make-up” artist. He is the part of us who tries to put a “good face” on the reasons we do what we do, the better to look at ourselves in a friendly mirror: one not too revealing of uncomfortable defects.
Think of a situation in which you fail to achieve your goal. Many explanations are available:
- I’m a loser. (Here you’ve taken a single disappointment and indicted your entire being and character).
- It was his fault. He was unfair. (In this example, right or not, someone else is blamed).
- This is a temporary set-back.
- Perhaps I need to approach situations like this in a different way. (Possible adaptation and learning enters the picture with this explanation).
- I did the best I could. (Defeat is acknowledged, but there is also a self-comforting understanding of the event).
- “Every knock is a boost.” (This was one of my dad’s expressions. He re-interpreted his defeats as exercises in strengthening his character).
Many other examples might be offered. Cognitive-behavior therapists try to help patients reframe their beliefs and assumptions about themselves and the world. They hope to free clients from self-damaging “self-talk.” CBT counselors encourage a reality-based, but adaptive way of approaching the task of thinking about and explaining our behavior to ourselves.
You and I are left with the question implied by Muley in his conversation with Tom: what do we tell ourselves?
I hope you give it some thought.
The top photo is called, Dust Bowl, Oklahoma. It shows a “father and sons walking in the face of a Dust Bowl storm in Cimarron County, OK,” April 1936. The picture was taken by Arthur Rothstein. The second image is Dust Storm Near Beaver, Oklahoma; July, 14, 1935. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. If the Dust Bowl is of interest, you might want to watch The Grapes of Wrath, the 1940 movie adaptation of the Steinbeck novel. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad. The film is widely considered one of the 100 greatest American films. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl is a terrific oral history of the period written by Timothy Egan. Finally, don’t miss Ken Burns’s documentary, The Dust Bowl.