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I was not expecting to walk into a dogfight that morning. The time was shortly before noon on a clear, crisp Sunday in November. I had come to the Goodwill store to do the kind of bartering that Goodwill formalizes: dropping off a huge bag of unwanted items and hoping to come out with just one or two other items. Most things in the bag were clothes I had scarcely worn, fresh-laundered and folded. Some were gifts and some were garments that I’d bought on my own, thinking they would make me look like an idealized version of myself instead of who I really am. So much for that. Those things were now out of the house and off my hands, bound for a different corner of the free market than the ones they came from. To replace them I bought a single wool sport coat. It spoke my true style and felt just right for the chilly-but-not-frigid days we get in late fall and early winter around here.
Altogether, a good transaction. My goal was the state of life that Marie Kondo describes, surrounding myself only with things that spark joy. In fact as I strolled out of the Goodwill store, toting my coat of joy, I reflected on what a wonderfully cosmopolitan world we live in. One where a nonprofit organization, founded by a Methodist minister over a century ago, can converge with the philosophy of a modern Japanese author and influencer to produce happiness in a person such as me.
The reverie didn’t last. There in the parking lot—directly behind the car parked next to mine—a hell of a hollering match was going on. Actually, it wasn’t much of a match. One woman was doing all the hollering while the other tried playing a sort of logical aikido to deflect the tirade. But of course, logic doesn’t help when your attacker comes at you with rage.
The young woman playing defense apparently owned the car. Inside it I could see a dog, ears perked, eyes alert. And the point of the tirade was that this young woman had committed an act of unforgivable ignorance. She had gone into the Goodwill, leaving her dog in the car with the windows up all the way. To me, it seemed a reasonable judgment call. Everybody knows you can’t do that on a sunbaked day in August. Once, at the beach, I left a pair of swim goggles on the dashboard of a closed car. I found them semi-melted and twisted out of usable shape. Imagine what would happen to a sentient being. But this was a day when the late-morning sun was just starting to take the cold nip out of the air. A dog who’d been in the park for some vigorous exercise might enjoy a bit of warmth, don’t you think?
So went the young woman’s defense. It came out in fragments whenever the ranting lady stopped for breath, and had no effect. The rant artist, a compact middle-aged woman with close-cropped hair, was on a dudgeon so high you couldn’t have reached it with a stepladder. Don’t tell me what a defenseless animal needs, she said. Or rather shouted, along with her credentials. She volunteered at an animal shelter. She foster-cared dogs and cats at home. If I recall correctly she had nursed baby kittens, or maybe it was wounded birds, by feeding them through an eyedropper.
The woman’s cause was just and it is one I support. People should learn how to treat their pets. I’ve had many over the years. I believe that animals are our kindred spirits, and I know I should stop eating them. I was tempted to suggest to the woman that a different approach might serve the cause better. The risk/reward meter, however, said to stand back and observe. And what I observed was this. The rant wasn’t really about the cause. Mostly, the woman ranted about her identification with the cause. Not once did I hear her speak to the core issues concerning the dog’s welfare. She made no reference to the observable condition of the dog, who seemed to show the normal signs of canine okayness. Nor did the woman engage in any analysis of whether the choice of window settings ought to depend on ambient temperature.
Those subjects had no place in the narrative. Good playwrights and screenwriters know that a script needs to stay on theme. Audiences will accept scenes that defy logic, but you should not give them any side stuff that distracts from the story you’re telling or the points you are trying to make. This woman had the principle hard-wired into her discourse. Agitated as she was, shouting and gesturing, the sentences spilled out with an assurance that said they’d been well-rehearsed in her mind, and the focus was relentless. I [emphasis on the “I”] happen to be someone who cares about animals. Most people don’t know and they don’t care, and it’s terrible. So it’s up to people like me to stand up for the animals, because somebody has to do it and …
The quotations aren’t exact. Whipping out my phone to record was unthinkable. What I am trying to capture is the spirit of the soliloquy, not the letter. And the spirit is one I recognize, because I have composed and delivered the same kind of harangue myself, in relation to other subjects, more than once. If only in my head. And so have you.
I sincerely thank the tirade lady. Although she embarrassed herself — near the end of the scene, the young dog-owner stopped trying to argue back and worked on suppressing giggles, while passersby glared and muttered — despite that, the woman performed a service. She acted out vividly a universal tendency that we often fail to notice. We want to be part of something big: ideally part of something big and righteous, which other people neglect or oppose or misunderstand.
It’s a powerful urge. It impels many of us to risk much more than embarrassment in order to stand up for a cause. The effects can be good, bad or superficial.
Whistleblowers identify with a good cause, integrity versus corruption behind the scenes. You will probably agree that activists for civil rights or human rights have good causes, too. Likewise persons who go into dangerous places to deliver humanitarian aid — Doctors Without Borders — or just to deliver the news: war reporters. Not to mention the courageous people who defend their country against invaders, from the French Resistance to the soldiers in Ukraine.
Let’s remember to include the tirade lady. Per her own report, she puts in lots of time with no pay, looking after neglected animals.
Let’s also count religious martyrs. The Catholic Church honors thousands. During the Vietnam War, some Buddhist monks set themselves aflame, as if to say to the combatants on all sides: When you wage war, this is what you do to yourselves. We should also note that by now we’re getting into gray areas. Suicide bombers kill others in the act of self-sacrifice. They’re honored by some and objects of horror to the rest.
But most of us don’t carry our identification with causes that far. We do something safer. Like rooting for a sports team. To the point of believing that one is part of the team, like the folks here in Pittsburgh who wear black and gold to show they’re part of Steeler Nation. When the 2005 Steelers won the Super Bowl, my wife and I watched on TV but our 12-year-old did not. The kid had zero interest in spectator sports. However I knew the kid enjoyed spectacles and I knew there would be one, so right after the game I coaxed the kid into the car and drove to a likely location. The visit was a great success. We got to wander among thousands of people dancing and chanting in the streets. We got to see a man writhing on the ground with a broken leg while the EMTs pressed toward him through the crowd. There was the customary bonfire, which consisted of an empty automobile (not ours) burning majestically in the black-and-gold night. The kid was enthralled, and I felt I had done my cultural duty as a father. I had introduced my child to the phenomenon that Elias Canetti wrote about in his masterpiece Crowds and Power.
Often the urge can be either good or bad depending on your viewpoint. While I disagree with Donald Trump on nearly everything, I have to admit that his 2016 campaign slogan was brilliant. Make America Great Again. An invitation to join a noble cause. An invitation that struck a chord with millions who felt drawn to that particular formula for greatness.
The urge to identify with a cause can be dangerous regardless of the nature of the cause. Some years ago, when road rage incidents were becoming a problem nationwide, a team of research psychologists at Colorado State University studied the subject from a unique angle. They published their findings in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. They found that drivers who put bumper stickers on their vehicles were significantly more prone to express road rage than drivers who did not. And here was the interesting part. It made no difference what the bumper stickers said. Didn’t matter whether the message was a militant one like “Don’t Mess with Texas” or one like “Coexist.” Either type, statistically speaking, flagged you as a high-risk rager.
How could this be? The researchers had a theory that goes roughly as follows. People who literally “put on” a larger identity are declaring a territory — a turf to which they belong, and vice versa. They feel a strong need to assert or defend that territory. So when another driver threatens their territory — perhaps by driving erratically or coming too close — they are fierce.
That’s not me. When it comes to identifying with causes I am a halfway kind of person who hangs back. Never, throughout a lifetime of owning vehicles new and used, have I put a sticker on a bumper. Or put a button in my lapel or a sign in my yard, or worn t-shirts declaring my affiliation with, or stand-up-ness for, anything whatsoever. Sometimes I thought that I oughta. But then I didn’t. Felt it would be similar to putting on the clothes that promised to make me look like an idealized version of myself instead of who I am.
Certainly I have felt the urge to trumpet a higher cause, many times. During the long (and at this point still ongoing) Trump years, I often felt that people were trampling on the principles which I believe make for a healthy society. Those were times when I conducted (and still conduct) the tirades in my head. I have pictured them in my mind’s eye and spoken them with my mind’s tongue. Typically I’m with a bunch of well-meaning but benighted right-wingers. We’re sitting around a table somewhere, maybe in a diner, and I am telling them what’s what from the perspective of a man who knows what he’s talking about because he has been there, done that, seen it, or at least read about it from reputable sources as opposed to the ones that these poor folks are misled by.
But I haven’t done anything of the sort in real life. Flirted with the opportunity a couple of times and that’s about it.
The same goes for identifying with groups, whether they’re formal organizations or demographics of people with common experiences. To an extent, I do join groups. And I practice teamwork. But, of all the larger identities that I could’ve worn on my sleeve over the years — which for me would range from “guy from a blue-collar background” to alumnus of a fine university, to member of a fairly important profession, to cancer survivor and more — I don’t usually broadcast any of those identities. Or do as much as I could to promote the causes associated with them. Or feel that any of them define me.
Am I missing something? Every coin has two sides. There is a flip side to the desire to be part of something big, and it’s the desire to be singular. Every coin also has an edge, running round the circumference. Which is where some of us like to be. Maybe we think we’re living life at the cutting edge. But maybe we’re just going in circles.
Copyright 2022 Mike Vargo.
Mike Vargo is a nonfiction writer, editor, and performer who lives in Pittsburgh.