Maybe and Might

May 18, 2011 — 13 Comments

I’ve learned recently that its better to tell people that I might do something or that maybe I will be going to this. You get better feedback this way. Rather, you actually get feedback this way because it creates an opening for it. People are reluctant to speak their feelings when its clear that you’ve made up your mind already.

It calls to mind a remark by William Tecumsah Sherman, who once told a friend he never gave reasons for what he thought until he absolutely had to. Because after a while, a new and better reason would pop into his head and he’d want to use that instead.

It’s what Polonius told Laertes in Hamlet. Keep your thoughts to yourself, he said, and “take each man’s censure but reserve thy judgement.”

Part of strong opinions, loosely held is side-stepping the tendency to reify. There is no need to amplify your intentions by repeating them as certainties. By wording things as contingencies, I feel that I am to make room for change based on the facts as they come. To set things up literally as only possibilities, but mentally as assumptions. Function follows form, as some say, and this is the proper form.

What this means presenting externally the signs of ambivalence, while beneath, know firmly what you intend to do and how you intend to do it. Because, with the exception of special circumstances, people who seem sure of themselves and their future are threatening. On the outside, be like everyone else: indolent and unsure and drifting. On the inside: none of these things.

I was thinking today about how one-sided our complaints typically are. The readiness with which we’ll take but refuse to give. Livid at a driver who takes too long at a light. Whoops, I spaced out there for a second, when we do it ourselves. Ask for rides to the airport whenever you need one. Meanwhile, you take a mental note of the gas gauge and watch the clock when you’re waiting curbside for someone else.

It’s funny how backwards we seem to have in. Really, in our complaints about others, the blame is spread out over a large group—it’s not this driver you’re reacting to but cumulatively this time plus the time it happened last week at a different light and a thousand other times since you’ve been driving—and yet, when it comes to the other side of the equation, it’s the opposite. We are the one who asks too much of our friends AND we are the one who gets distracted and holds up traffic too often. That’s not how it is in our heads though.

Think about how often we expect empathy and don’t think to give it. Someone is rude to you, it’s not acceptable. When you are rude, it’s because you’re tired, you didn’t mean it, because the process has been frustrating. We ask without consideration and can’t even consider why someone else might be asking of us.

In some respects this is just routine selfishness. But it’s also rooted in the misguided way we keep score. We keep a tab, subconsciously mostly, for all of humanity. Ratcheting up our attitude or disillusionment each time we’re imposed upon or screwed over as though the world was working in conjunction against us. And then, we deliberately forget our own impositions on this world—how many that we have taken and taken or been the problem.

It would be better and we would be happier (and more generous) if we worked on flipping this. Look at each individual instance for what it is, a trivial and singular encounter but look at everything that you do as part of a collective and closely watched account. As one philosopher put it, pretend that everyone else is hemmed in by predetermination but that you, and you alone, have been given free-will. Because when you give up the misguided notion that they are in control and focus solely on the fact that you in fact are in control, the whining petulance stops and the magnanimity can begin.

A bunch of people have asked for an archive of my Reading Email (where I do monthly book recommendations) and with the help of a reader, I was able to put one together. I don’t know how many books are on it but it goes back almost two years now and I stand behind all the choices. You may have also noticed the big button on the side of the site advertising for it. The email has gotten a lot bigger than I expected so if you’re not signed up yet, you should. The thing is getting better and more and more popular and I hope you’ll become a part of it.

To see the Reading List Email Archive, go here.
To sign up for the Reading List Email, go here.

As always, feel free to email me your thoughts and suggestions.

There was a moment in the Civil War where Ulysses S Grant found his legs. Although he’d had experienced leading men into battle during the Mexican-American war, part of his early stumbles can be explained by fear. Or, at least, the anxiety that comes along with being uncertain of yourself. In July of 1861 he was sent to break up a notorious group of guerillas led by Gen. Tom Harris. Grant hemmed and hawed in his mindit wasn’t the fighting, it was the fighting as a colonel. If there was some way he could be the lieutenant-colonel, he later wrote, and someone else could be the colonel he’d  have been fine.

And so, racked with misapprehension, he marched his men on their mission. But when he arrived at the Harris’ camp it was empty. They enemy had left, knowing Grant was coming. Grant changed in this instant. His fears disappeared and did not return. Grant wrote later in his memoirs “it occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him…from that event to the close of the war…I never forgot that the enemy has as much reason to fear my forces as I had his.”

It’s probably a strange take on this, but such a realizationthe power you have over your opponentis deeply connected with empathy. It’s understanding and acknowledging that there is a world outside your predominant emotions. And that this is a logical world, one that is ripe with people who feel what you feel not because you are special and came to it first but because we are all the same.  In a perverted way, it’s very hubristic to think only you would feel fear in this situation. It is to deny, essentially, the enemy a sense of personhood or self. It is to assume that your emotions matter and nothing else doesor rather, that they do not even exist.

So I think you apply Grant’s realization to many parts of your life. The awkwardness of introducing yourself to strangers. Fighting with your girlfriend. Business negotiations. Selling a product. Taking a test. Pitching an idea. It’s not simply that you have something to do or say, there is another person who will be responding to you and that response is equally daunting. And you have to remember that well before the stage of being very attuned to others is the realization that those others exist. And the power that comes from taking that first step. Because most people don’t.

And here, I feel like this better says what I’ve been trying to get at for a long time:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Perceptions like that—latching on onto thing and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the timeall through our lives when things lay claim to our trustto lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI.13″

I tried here, here, here, here, here, here, here and so many times when I needed to convince myself that it wasn’t all that it appeared. That was some reason, no matter how deep the draw was, to not be like that, to not give in. What I like about finding this again is that its kind of the opposite of that feeling that Emerson talked about when he said that in the genius of others we’ll see our own rejected thoughts with an alienated majesty. This wasn’t discovering that someone else had said what I have struggled to say or never was able to say. This was finding the source that put me down the path the begin with. This is the origin of that nascent thought. And it’s replenishing to return to it.