3 Minute Presentation: The Melissa Calculus

Canvas for Public Discourse

Once I was sitting in a coffee shop and a woman wanted something from me. What she wanted was slightly unusual. She turned to me and said that she felt she was receiving a calling. She asked, “Would you mind if I prayed for you?”

I’m a godless woman, and so I said, “sure.”

She asked me to describe the troubles in my life so her prayers could be more specific, and she held my hands as she said a prayer to god, out loud, in a coffee shop.

I later told my godless boyfriend Max about the encounter, intending it to be an amusing anecdote. I was surprised how Max’s face immediately turned sour.

“You let her pray for you??”

“Well, yeah, I mean, why not?”

“This woman is such an asshole! She could have prayed silently to herself, but she had to interrupt your whole day to prove how pious she is!”

“But I mean, it clearly meant so much to her to let her pray for me, and I feel completely neutrally about it.”

Max continued, “It really bothers me that she thinks she did a favor for you, but really you did a favor for her.”

I said, “It doesn’t bother me. If I wind up feeling neutrally and she feels really good about herself, then that means I did the right thing.”

Max responded, “Sometimes your Melissa Calculus makes me really mad.”

The Melissa Calculus is a term that my boyfriend coined. It’s a cost-benefit analysis that I do when someone wants me to do something for them. I think of what I have to lose from the interaction, and what the other person has to gain. The Melissa Calculus states that if you can reasonably assume that the other person will gain more than you will lose, then you should participate in the interaction.

Sometimes the losses and gains can be quantified. If you live or work in an apartment building with a terrible elevator system, you may want to hold the door when you see a person running for it, rather than frantically hit the “door close” button. You’ll only lose about 10 or 20 seconds, but the other person would have lost 1 to 3 minutes waiting for the next elevator.

This is not to cast judgment on anyone who lets an elevator door close. I have have often used the door close button, sometimes with vigor, sometimes with spite. But if you are ever unsure of what you should do, I find that it is often helpful to let the Melissa Calculus decide.

It works even when people aren’t specifically asking for something. You might take 5 minutes to write to your 3rd grade teacher on Facebook about how you found her really inspiring. Whatever it costs you to set 5 minutes aside and compose a post, it may be a dozen times more meaningful to the teacher who receives that post.

There is a flaw with the Melissa Calculus. It requires you to make assumptions about people, often times people you don’t know very well. Maybe your 3rd grade teacher came to hate the public school system and is now anarchist. Maybe she’ll comment on your post by telling you that you were a lousy third grader and you should go fuck yourself. It’s a matter of weighing probability.

Then there’s the matter of figuring out how much your time and energy are “objectively” worth. I’m a person who has depression, and a symptom of depression can be assuming that you are worthless. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how much psychic pain I endure, if it makes someone else happy. The Melissa Calculus only works if you have self-worth. The Melissa Calculus asks that you take care of yourself first.

Really what the Melissa Calculus wants to remind you is that it is often the case that small inconveniences for you can make other people feel really good. It’s like using a lever, or a pulley. You don’t have to tug the rope that hard to move what seemed like a mountain.

The Medium is the Message: Response

Canvas for Public Discourse

Leonard Doob, in his report Communication in Africa, tells of one African who took great pains to listen each evening to the BBC news, even though he could understand nothing of it. Just to be in the presence of those sounds at 7 P.M. each day was important for him. His attitude to speech was like ours to melody— the resonant intonation was meaning enough.

Marshall McLuhan

There are many ideas in McLuhan’s essay that I sympathize with. He excoriates a general who argued that the “products of modern science” are not inherently good or bad; their value is only revealed in their use. I agree with McLuhan here–the General is peddling a more eloquent version of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. We should be critical of firearms regardless of whom they are fired on. McLuhan responds to the General with sarcasm: “Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.” His point being that apple pie is a form of technology, and a person can certainly come to a conclusion about some of its qualities before taking a bite, or throwing the pie in someone’s face. Though there are many possible “uses” for an apple pie, but it does not sit in an objective neutral state until it gets used.

I also think about McLuhan’s essay with regards to an artist I know. Though she trained as a visual artist for many years, a few years ago she decided she wanted to pursue poetry instead. I am a writer (but not a poet), and I found myself very frustrated by her pivot. She had spent years studying visual art, and is really good at it! It seemed so presumptuous to simply decide to become a poet.

I recall her finding a dead moth on a windowsill, squealing with joy at the providence of finding such a beautiful dead thing, and sitting down to write a poem. I read the poem–and I thought it was terrible. I thought to myself, shouldn’t she have just drawn the fucking moth? The girl can draw, she can’t write!

I felt like she was doing the world a disservice by creating a dumb poem, rather than a good drawing. But it’s also fair to say that the world doesn’t need a drawing of a dead moth either, even if it’s quite a good drawing. It makes me wonder, what does a poem do that a painting simply can’t? Why did she find herself so enchanted with poetry, and so disenchanted with drawing? I’m trying to ask, are there merits of writing a bad poem because of the nature of the medium?

When I return to McLuhan’s quote above, I find myself irritated–a similar kind of irritation I had towards the bad poem. What is the man really gaining from listening to a radio broadcast he can’t understand? He is well within his rights to do so, but wouldn’t his time be better served elsewhere? McLuhan argues that radio can communicate something outside of its content, such that it may well be worthwhile to listen to a radio show in a language you can’t understand. But what is that thing being communicated? Intonation? I would argue that intonation becomes much more important when it is partnered with content, language. McLuhan says that it doesn’t matter if a train carries gunpowder or grain. It matters to a militia if there is no gunpowder. It matters to a starving town if there is no grain.