If The Only Tool You Have Is A Hammer, Then Every Problem Begins to Look Like A Nail

The narrow and shorted sighted vision of behavior modification briefly explained.

Sep 9, 2020 · 6 min read

“You can’t change people.” That’s what my mom told me during more than a few very difficult periods of my life. Throughout my life, I’d run into people who wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do. I’d ask them to do something and they would not do it. I’d ask them to not do something and immediately, they’d do it.

I also found that when I suffered, I wanted others to suffer. I did not want others to have fun while I was suffering. I wanted to join in the fun but didn’t know how to invite myself in. I was a grumpy cat.

As a boy in school, I was teased relentlessly by some of my classmates. In response, my dad taught me to fight my adversaries rather than to make more friends. I didn’t know any better, and as far as I can tell, neither did my father, as he was the one who taught me to hit, to fight. If he knew how to make friends, I am sure he would have taught me how to make friends.

Unfortunately, friends don’t come with manuals, so I didn’t do so well learning on my own. And I had no other mentors in school to help me. I didn’t even know what a mentor was. I didn’t know I could ask for one.

I was also raised in a world of punishment and reward. A world where people more powerful than I would say, “Do what I say and I will reward you. Fail to heed my words and you will be punished.” I spent many years vacillating between punishment and reward. And no one was teaching me how to learn the skills I need to avoid the punishment and get the reward. I was expected to know all that stuff as if I was born with it.

If I got good grades, I got $5 for every A in school. If I failed to get good grades, I got grounded. I was grounded for an entire summer once. I could only do homework until it was all done. Lots and lots of math homework. My stereo and all of my albums were taken from me. I had no phone, no TV, and could not go outside to play. It was just me, an 8-track player and two tapes, ELO’s “Out of the Blue” and the soundtrack to the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and my homework for the whole summer.

Did I learn anything from that? I learned how to live in isolation. I learned how to make myself busy to avoid boredom. I spent a lot of time reading. I spent a lot of time doing math homework. Somehow, my dad made a deal with my math teacher for a better grade if I did my math homework over the summer. I don’t remember all the details anymore. I just remember one very lonely summer. And all that was my father using force of some kind to get me to change. I learned that how I feel is dependent on external circumstances.

I spent a lot of time as an adult, trying to recover from all of that and more. I met friends along the way to help me. I found meetings. I found therapists. I found books. Lots and lots of books. I think I went for a decade or so without TV. I just didn’t see the point in watching it. I rented a few movies here and there, but that was it.

I had a hammer, but I hated using it. Every time I tried to punish someone for some perceived slight, it would never go the way I wanted it to go. I lost friends. I lost myself while trying to figure out what happened. I have since learned to live in peace.

Now, when I watch movies or a television series, I see the same thing, over and over again. The antagonist uses a hammer against the protagonist. The protagonist uses another hammer back. The entire plot goes back and forth like a slow-motion melee in a drama, and like a drumming competition in an action movie. It’s all about getting the other person to change.

I look upon the circus in Washington, and I see the same thing. Trump does something to China to get them to change and China does something back. He changes public policy to get people to change, and people fill the streets. He’s pushing every button and pulling every lever he can find, to get other people to change. I look at our foreign policy and it’s all about getting other countries to change. We’re not supposed to change. They are. I was like that once.

A long time ago, when I was still captured by the allure of the idea that I could change people, I heard someone say, “Resentment is like drinking poison while waiting for the other person to die.” I think that is what is happening to my country, these United States. For much of our history, that is what we’ve been doing.

Someone once said, so long ago, and attribution is hard to find or controversial, but he said, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” This is a perfect description of the culture I live in. I live in a system of laws backed by force, the hammer, and yet people say America is the land of the free. I see the hammer in nearly all of the popular culture, and the use of force is glorified in much of our media. From the news to the movies, the use of force is pervasive.

Every war, every skirmish, every armed conflict that America has engaged in required a hammer. And we have some very frightening, gigantic hammers. America is addicted to using hammers, too. When a president gives an order to deploy, arm, and launch a weapon, even if he is not the one pushing the button, he will have a feeling about giving the order. Everyone in the chain of command will have a similar feeling, a shot of adrenaline. Adrenaline is a huge hit to the nervous system. It is fight or flight. And for much of American history, it’s a fight. When faced with a conflict, we have a terrible tendency to reach for the hammer and use it.

From foreign policy to parenting, to entertainment, there are hammers everywhere. If a foreign country doesn’t do what we ask, we send missiles, planes, and troops. If an adversary doesn’t do what we ask, we make threats to do something that we hope will make the other person change. If a child doesn’t do what we ask, we spank the child or we give him a time out. Popular culture and politics are saturated with revenge.

Hammers don’t teach anything. Hammers don’t satisfy human needs. Well, if you’re building a house, then a hammer can help to satisfy a human need. But when used to imposed force upon another human being, hammers cannot teach anything but force. Hammers reinforce challenging behavior. In that context, hammers only satisfy one desire, not a need: to assert power over another.

I’m not saying we should ban hammers — we still need to build houses. I’m saying we need better tools, more tools, for shaping a society built upon peace and non-aggression. The greatest tool we have is cooperation. Cooperation is the foundation skill of all of humanity. We have evolved to cooperate and language is proof of that. There is no other reason to even have language unless you want cooperation.

We even get a feeling when we cooperate, and it’s usually a mild form of pleasure. That feeling often comes from the bonding endorphin oxytocin. From a handshake to a hug, to procreation, whenever we cooperate to ensure our mutual survival, we have a good feeling about it.

Every day, I ask for cooperation in some form other or another. Much of what I say is really unspoken, but because I’m cooperative, I tend to get cooperation in return. And I act in the way I want to be treated, too, for cooperation is mutual. If I want peace, I am peaceful with others. If I want to play, I play with others. I err on the side of peace, to the greatest extent possible.

I write this in the hopes that more and more people will notice that the hammer is a very limited instrument and that cooperation is always there, always available, always ready. Cooperation is the can opener. Cooperation is a swiss army knife. Cooperation is how we solve the problems that hammers can’t solve. Cooperation is the tool we use to prevent the problems that hammers create.

Cooperation is infinitely more flexible than the hammer. Cooperation is baked into us. We only need to make the choice to cooperate rather than to retaliate. Cooperation requires no force. All that is needed is an invitation, and the peace we can derive from cooperation can be yours.

Write on.

Originally published on Steemit.com, August 8th, 2018. Updated for grammar, clarity, and a turn of phrase here and there.

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Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds


Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

The Innovation

A place for a variety of stories from different backgrounds

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