Just another day in Delhi

Morning

I got my visa renewed. It was not a miracle. Each and every student I know has successfully got their visa renewed. For my visa to have been rejected, I would have had to have committed some serious crimes in the United States. Maybe defrauded the government of millions; or not picked up a fake accent. But I knew that I wasn’t guilty of any of these crimes.

Despite knowing that my visa processing should have gone through smoothly, I was very nervous the whole morning before the interview. My hands were shaking, and my muscles (well, muscle) tensed. What if that Facebook status update I shared offended the government somehow? Should I not have written that article on Afghanistan? All these doubts made me sweat profusely, and also made my vision blurry….until my visa did get approved. Suddenly, colors became brighter, and I could breathe easy. For some reason, I strode out of the embassy like a triumphant general. I had convinced some officials to let me work for minimum wage in their country because I was sure I didn’t have it in me to make it in my own country. Alpha male in his prime.

I then decided to hang out with my friends around Delhi. For some reason, I was dismissive and condescending towards them. When they suggested that we hang out at a certain tourist spot, I scoffed at their suggestion and decided that we all go elsewhere. I felt supremely confident about myself, and decided that my opinions were more important than others’. Of course I checked myself soon enough, and with some effort returned to normal. It was only then that I realized how odd my behavior had been. I had only gotten my visa renewed; something that didn’t require any particular skills form my side. Despite this, I felt completely responsible for this “victory”, and decided that I was better than everybody else. I was taking credit for events that were only in a very limited sense my doing, and was convinced that all the good things that had happened to me were solely a result of my innate capabilities and drive.

This is probably what rich people think every day.

Evening

I was walking to a restaurant to have dinner with my friends, when an Audi with dark windows came screeching at us out of nowhere. It didn’t slow down when it saw us, and would probably have plowed right into us had we not rushed back. It was probably some smug rich kid trying to impress the plebs on foot….or maybe just a horrible driver who didn’t see us in time. I could have shaken it off, maybe made a couple of statements about “no traffic rules in India…” and “things are better in the US….” or something, and then just walked on. However, I was mostly just completely consumed with anger for the rest of the evening.

I began to imagine ways that I would avenge myself on that rich kid (definitely a rich kid!). I could empty my bank account, buy an even better car, and crash it right into the Audi. This way, I could signal that I was rich (mostly fantastical thinking), and also someone who couldn’t be messed with. I also wished that I knew some powerful people in the ruling party, who could ensure that that guy would get nicely beaten up in police custody. I wanted some police batons up peoples’ bottoms right then and there!

I was someone who had read up on status signaling a lot, and also explicitly wished to not ever be involved in it. However, it took just a fraction of a second with a badly driven car for me to want to devote all my money, time and influence to somehow signal my higher status to that driver. Perhaps this is just a demonstration of how deeply engrained our need for status signaling is. Reading up on status signaling doesn’t really take me out of the game. It just allows me to put a name to this phenomenon in retrospect when my primeval brain is done status signaling.

Experiences like these make me think that changing my brain into what I want is a much more difficult process than I give it credit for. Despite all my introspection and writing, I will mostly only be driven by my simian brain, and only later will be able to make sense of my irrational tendencies. This is something that the Rationalist community struggles with too. They spend a lot of time thinking about various biases and fallacies about the human brain, but often find themselves indulging in such biases despite the time spent trying to correct for them. Is there any hope?

Although I don’t have any concrete ideas about this, I do believe that writing things down helps in more ways than one. Maybe writing a small passage every morning would help? I don’t know. But I do hope to try and do this for a month, and hopefully report on whether this has changed things for me. But if you do hear about an Audi with dark glasses that was mysteriously trashed in the middle of the night….

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Graduate student

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