A Letter to Rational People Cover

A Letter to Rational People

Hercule Poirot stands on the balcony, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Atop the clock tower in Jaffa, Israel, the greatest detective in the world stares into the distance. It is 1934.

Still baffled by how the Belgian gentleman with the big mustache solved the case of the missing relic, the captain of the police can’t help himself but stare.

“It’s just…how did you know it was him, sir? From just a tiny crack on the wall.”

“I have the advantage…I can only see the world as it should be. And when it is not, the imperfection stands out like the nose in the middle of a face. It…it makes most of life unbearable. But it is useful in the detection of crime.”

There are a lot of Hercule Poirots here on the web. Wonderful, rational people. It’s one of the reasons why I love this place. We may not all be detectives by profession, but we’re just as curious, just as righteous, just as skeptical of everything that, in a balanced world, shouldn’t be.

It’s why we read and write about justice, about equality, about fairness. About getting along, living better, and being kind. But sometimes we come up short.

This is a letter to everyone facing those times. A letter to rational people.

Nothing In-Between

The captain isn’t quite satisfied. Yes, Poirot can see the world plainly, but there is something more. Something beyond facts. “But it’s as though you see into their hearts and divine their true natures,” he says. To which Poirot replies:

“And whatever people say, there is right, there is wrong. There is nothing in-between.”

At first I was confused at Poirot’s statement. Doesn’t he know the truth is subjective? Isn’t that what makes him a great detective? Then I realized, it is knowing that this dichotomy exists despite the truth being subjective that does. We all have our own version of reality, but in each one, the distinction between right and wrong persists. Always. And, in a surprisingly large number of situations, a surprisingly large number of people agree.

As we become more rational, whether that’s through training, brute force, or education, the choice between wrong and right hovers more and more clearly over our head. And every day, we fight to do our best. But it’s hard. We don’t always choose what’s right, we’re only human after all. But the more we know what’s right, the more it weighs on us. That burden can be a lot to carry.

Breakpoint

The train pulls into the small town of Brod, Bosnia. Only days have passed, but they feel like years. The case he’s solved on board brought him to the edge of both his morals and abilities. Before he disembarks, Poirot writes a letter of his own. A letter to an old friend, that he only sends in his mind.

“My dear Colonel Armstrong,

finally I can answer your letter. At least with the thoughts in my head and the feeling in my heart that somewhere, you can hear me.

I have now discovered the truth of the case and it is profoundly disturbing. I have seen the fracture of the human soul. So many broken lives, so much pain and anger, giving way to the poison of deep grief, until one crime became many.”

When we grow past the mercy of our emotions, beyond holding ourselves accountable, we suddenly see the injustice all around us. Life’s not fair. Children die. Criminals succeed.

It’s not just depressing. It’s tempting. We’ve all made the wrong choice at the right time and gotten off easy. But there is a breakpoint to how much we can tolerate. It may not break you, but at least once in life, it is everyone’s turn.

I don’t know if it’s your turn yet, but I want you to know you’re not alone.

Even the greatest detective in the world has his struggles.

What Rationality Is Built Upon

As Poirot grapples with the abyss he’s staring into, he feels trapped in the middle. A prison halfway between wrong and right. This time, however, the key lies not within the depths of the human mind.

“I have always wanted to believe that man is rational and civilized. My very existence depends upon this hope, upon order and method and the little grey cells. But now, perhaps, I am asked to listen, instead, to my heart.”

What unites us in our fight for rationality is not our ability to see the world clearly. It is neither intelligence nor discipline; not even a shared lack of understanding for those, who act on impulse. We all set out on this journey together because we built our lives around this same, undying hope. That underneath it all, in spite of everything, man is still good. And sometimes, that hope must be enough.

If you’ve recently failed to do the right thing, whether you’ve known it before or found out after: rest easy. When others have failed to do right by you, rest easy. And give them space to rest easy too. Even the man who dedicated his whole life to finding the truth comes to see that sometimes, peace lies in that paralyzing fog between our choices. Or worse, on the wrong side. But from time to time, finding it may be more important than being right.

“I have understood in this case that the scales of justice cannot always be evenly weighed. And I must learn, for once, to live with the imbalance.”

You won’t always get what you deserve. You won’t always live a happy life. In fact, it will often be unbearable. But in spite of the imbalance, you will always find the strength to go on.

And to me, no matter where life sends us, going on is always the truth.

The Wonderful Thing About Broken Promises Cover

The Wonderful Thing About Broken Promises

One of the most important things to remember about other people is this:

They won’t.

Your school teacher says she’ll take the class for ice cream. But she won’t.

The store clerk says he’ll gladly refund you if the shoes don’t fit. But he won’t.

Your old acquaintance says she’ll text you when she’s in town. But she won’t.

The guy handing out loans says he’ll see what he can do for you. But he won’t.

Your classmate says she’ll send you her essay when she’s done. But she won’t.

The professor says he’ll only use class material for the exam. But he won’t.

Your waitress says she’ll be right back with your drink. But she won’t.

Your date says they’ll call you. But they won’t.


One way of looking at this is that it’s just sad. The fact that humans don’t value their own word must be one of the biggest reasons the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I, too, wish we could all grow up without losing that spark of hope in our six-year-old eyes and never be disappointed. But we can’t.

What we can do is change our perspective to at least try and turn this weight into a stepping stone. So here’s another point of view: Every broken promise is a chance to be compassionate.

An opportunity to think “I hope he’s alright” instead of “he’s dead to me.” A shot at considering they, too, might’ve been given nothing but broken promises all their life. A wonderful excuse to reduce your expectations of flawed humans in a world we all struggle with.

Practicing this is hard. But compassion is the right answer. How do I know?

Well, here’s another change of perspective: You are other people’s ‘other people.’ To them, you’re the one who ‘won’t.’

We all fail to follow through sometimes. No one’s perfect. But my guess is you, like most of us, don’t make promises and break them on purpose. Do you?

People are good at heart. It’s how we’ve come to be so many in the first place. We do look out for one another. That horrible picture of human nature the news continue to paint was never accurate. Still isn’t. If it had been at any point, we’d long be extinct. Therefore, the odds of being in the wrong when you forgive others are so low, it’s not even a risk worth taking.

When you give others the benefit of the doubt, you can also more easily extend this graciousness to yourself. Because whenever you break a promise, that’s also an opportunity: one to show yourself compassion. Maybe, you needn’t shoulder all that much. Maybe, you don’t have to make so many commitments. To live up to all these self-created obligations.

Promises are hope manufactured by humans. And we tend to oversupply.

Let’s switch perspectives one last time: Life doesn’t make any promises. We’re all born with high hopes, but none of them were ever advertised to us as guaranteed to come true. None of them. To no one.

In the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient, spiritual text of Hinduism, Prince Arjuna is led into battle by his guide and charioteer Lord Krishna. There are many interpretations of it, but Arjuna likely stands for humanity, while Krishna represents a higher power. The battlefield reflects the many struggles of life.

At one point, Krishna tells Arjuna we have “the right to our labor, but not its fruits.” You can take this literally, of course. Love the process, but don’t get attached to the outcome. Given the broader context of the scripture, however, I think it’s worth projecting:

The only reward we get out of life is being alive itself.

This includes beautiful, sunny days, on which you’ll eat way too much ice cream and fall asleep in your dream partner’s arms, as much as it includes the days you break down crying in the subway, because you’re broke, desperate, and that partner just left you. Gratitude for being able to experience both is the one gift that keeps on giving.

But it’s a gift we must learn to keep receiving and that itself takes a lifetime. Our own failure to accept this that we’re truly disappointed with when others don’t keep their word with us. Not that our friends were five minutes late. It is out of this universal disappointment that individual anger arises, which we throw at whoever happens to feel like a close, appropriate target at the time.

No, people won’t always keep their promises. And you won’t either. But if you can remember that it’s neither what we do nor what we say, but the time we spend here together that makes life worth living, even broken words will weave the fabric of the experience.