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Glenda Jackson stars as Maud, a woman with dementia trying to puzzle out two mysteries, in "Elizabeth Is Missing." Marsaili Mainz/STV Productions

Glenda Jackson stars as Maud, a woman with dementia trying to puzzle out two mysteries, in "Elizabeth Is Missing." Marsaili Mainz/STV Productions

For many of my eight decades, I believed we should all be rational. Now I realize that's an irrational dream. Too many of us are not, too much of the time. Thus, if I don't want to drive myself crazy bemoaning all the irrationality flying around me, I'd better learn to cope with it better. But exactly how? That's the question.

Although our lack of rationality has increasingly dawned on me, it struck me again the last few nights after watching the filmDianeand PBS’s Masterpiece Theater’s “Elizabeth Is Missing,” starring Glenda Jackson as a woman with Alzheimer’s. Neither the drug-addicted son Brian (Jake Lacy) of Diane (Mary Kay Place) nor Maude (Jackson) act rationally when their afflictions are affecting their behavior; and the people dealing with them, primarily Diane and Maude’s daughter Helen (Helen Behan), find it tough dealing with such irrationality.

Then, of course, there’s all the political irrationality--primarily coming from Trump and his afflicted diehard followers, some of whom violently occupied the capitol building on 6 January. How could people have ever voted for such a narcissistic fool and then continue to support him as his egregious behavior continues to soar to new heights? Thus many of us ask ourselves as we scratch our puzzled heads.

Those of us with backgrounds in Academia and many other progressives like to think we operate in a world that values truth and reason. We value such books as Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now:The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress and Al Gore’sThe Assault on Reason, which argue that living a reasonable personal, social, and political life is the way to act. Like devoted scientists, we advocate be seekers of truth.

It’s not just those suffering with serious diseases like drug addiction and Alzheimer’s, or Trumpian delusions, who display irrationalism.

But it’s not just those suffering with serious diseases like drug addiction and Alzheimer’s, or Trumpian delusions, who display irrationalism. In 2010, Dan Ariely wrote that “the many ways in which we are all irrational” is what his bookPredictably Irrational was all about. A few years later, Jonathan Haidt in hisThe Righteous Mind indicated that people were more concerned with being righteousness than rational. In his 2016Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, Rick Shenkman noted that “the evidence is abundant that public opinion is often not rational.” And even in good marriages, there are moments when one spouse wonders, as Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow imagines one might, “Would she [or he] not at times have been as incomprehensible and exasperating to me as most men’s wives [or women’s husbands] appear at times?”

Thus, given all the irrationality continually battering us, how best to deal with it? In a major part of his book, Shenkman indicates one way--become more empathetic. Not all of what follows here is suggested there, but he deserves credit for realizing how important that virtue is in helping us deal with the irrational. 

In an essay on empathy some five years ago, I quoted the following :

“[Empathy] is a tool for understanding the way another person thinks, feels or perceives. It enables us to comprehend another’s mindset, driving emotions or outlook, without requiring us to share the other’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions, or, indeed, approve of them. An empathetic approach involves the assimilation of diverse information, including social, historical and psychological details, and a conscious effort to see the world through that person’s eyes.”

When I was teaching history classes, I often used to tell students that before they condemn various historical figures try first to understand their thinking, their feelings, where they’re “coming from.” After retiring, I reviewed a book that emphasized the same point and defined "strategic empathy" as the “skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others. It is what allows us to pinpoint what truly drives and constrains the other side. Unlike stereotypes, which lump people into simplistic categories, strategic empathy distinguishes what is unique about individuals and their situation.”

Empathy eases the strain of dealing with irrationality whether in personal life or the political world. One of the hardest chores for someone like Helen (Maud’s daughter in “Elizabeth Is Missing”) is to imagine what goes on in the head of Maud, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Because Helen has never suffered the brain damage that Maud has, never experienced the resulting mental confusion, it is an extremely difficult challenge. But to the extent Helen can succeed, to the extent she can empathize, it will help replace her frustration with compassion.

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The importance of empathy in politics has been stressed by Barack Obama. In hisThe Audacity of Hope, written before he assumed the presidency, he wrote that empathy was a quality that he found himself “appreciating more and more,” that it was “at the heart” of his moral code, “not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.” After becoming president, he continued to urge more empathy in order to reduce political polarization. In a 2010 commencement address at the University of Michigan, for example, he exhorted the graduates to try “to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from.”

Such understanding does not mean agreeing or sympathizing with views we find repugnant, but it can at least help us comprehend how others can think or feel the way they do. As Obama told the graduates, “We can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it.”

Two other qualities that can help us deal with the frustrations of irrational behavior are humility and humor. In regard to the first, what the monk Thomas Merton once wrote about dealing with those we think are acting “wrong” also goes for those we think are being irrational: “We never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy.” We should paraphrase the words of Alexander Pope (“To err is human”) and tell ourselves, “To be irrational is human.” And each of us act in such a way, at least sometimes. Thus, we shouldn’t be so harsh and impatient with others who act that way.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr linked humor with humility when he wrote:

Humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. . . . People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to “stand off” from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions. All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions. What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously. We are rather insignificant little bundles of energy and vitality in a vast organization of life. But we pretend that we are the very center of this organization. This pretension is ludicrous; and its absurdity increases with our lack of awareness of it. The less we are able to laugh at ourselves the more it becomes necessary and inevitable that others laugh at us. . . . To meet the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies with laughter, is a high form of wisdom. Such laughter does not obscure or defy the dark irrationality. It merely yields to it without too much emotion and friction. A humorous acceptance of fate is really the expression of a high form of self-detachment. If men do not take themselves too seriously, if they have some sense of the precarious nature of the human enterprise, they prove that they are looking at the whole drama of life not merely from the circumscribed point of their own interests but from some further and higher vantage point.

Niebuhr’s words should not discourage a realistic view of life, one that realizes--as did Shakespeare and Chekhov--the extent of life’s tragedy, as well as its comedy. Much tragedy can result from irrational behavior. Think of all of it that flowed from Germans supporting Hitler or acquiescing in his formation of the Nazi regime. But we must also realize there is only so much we can do. Psychologist Robert Sternberg has written of fallacies that people lacking humility often demonstrate. One is that “they come to believe that the world revolves, or at least should revolve, around them.” Like the poker mantra about knowing when to "hold them [cards] and when to fold them," we need to realize what occasions demand our passion and energy to effect change and what occasions do not. In everyone’s life there are some of the latter when we can only look on with tolerance and compassion and “go with the flow.”

Learning to live with all the irrationality surrounding us--including our own irrational moments--does not mean we should give up on trying to promote more rational behavior. In his Political Animals, Shenkman’s “Conclusion” chapter offers various tips, including improving our self-knowledge and “putting ourselves in contact with people who share different views.” (In his 2010 commencement address at the University of Michigan, President Obama offered similar advice: “If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized. . . . Seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs. . . . If you're somebody who only read the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of the Wall Street Journal once in a while [even if it seems irrational]. . . . The practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.)"

Another way of dealing with irrationality is to recognize that not all non-rational behavior is irrational. Our values, myths, faiths and beliefs are not all rationally based, but they do not have to be irrational. And there are various strategies, including the use of stories, to try to reduce people’s irrationality. I’ll cite just two political examples from a previous essay. At a cabinet meeting Lincoln once said, “I don’t propose to argue this matter because arguments have no effect upon men whose opinions are fixed and whose minds are made up.” Instead, he told a story to illustrate his point. The Franklin Roosevelt Foundation noted that “to heal a wounded nation,” FDR relied “in no small part” on “storytelling” . . . to tap into humankind’s primeval need to understand issues not only in intellectual terms, but on an emotional level as well.” 

On a non-political level, non-rational approaches might also work best. In dealing with people suffering from Alzheimer’s, like Glenda Jackson’s Maude, rational arguments are often useless and even counterproductive. Empathy, humility, and compassion are what is needed. So too are creativity and imagination.

An Alzheimer’s caregiver struggling to know how best to deal with one so inflicted (perhaps a spouse or some other loved one) is like FDR trying to figure how best to deal with the complex phenomenon known as the Great Depression. Such a caregiver might consider FDR’s advice--to “take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another.” His exhortation that follows--“We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely”--is also apt. Regarding creativity, we might recall Neil deGrasse Tyson’s observation that “rational thoughts never drive people's creativity the way emotions do.”

walter moss

In summary, in battling irrationality we should arm ourselves with empathy, tolerance, humility, and humor while also realizing that there are other non-rational (but not irrational) means of reducing it.

Walter G. Moss