Not liking not liking.
Now that I'm pretty solidly Stoic, I'm still working on myself, that thing I can change. But since I'm an essayist, I am called to, and have developed the habit of being critical. I believe I'm paying attention to a lot of typical issues that are of concern of thoughtful folks like you, but 'critical' almost sounds like 'cynical' the way people use it. I don’t want to be crabby.
I've discovered some things about the way people talk and offer up topics for discussion. While this may not be timely or typical for Thanksgiving, it's that reflective time of year. What I'm thinking is that in most of my conversations I want to be something that sounds squishy. I want to avoid expository complaint. I want my wisdom to be engaging and calm.
What I understand about humans is that we are highly adaptable. Whatever we say about inflation, we will suffer for it until we don't. We will stop suffering as soon as we accept it as the 'new normal'. We are marvels at adaptation. Our understandings are always ahistorical and we invest in them anyway. We show a remarkable ability to forget the lessons of history because we can forget how bad things are or how bad they are becoming. Among other things, this explains the persistence of golfers, 98% of whom admit they suck at their impossible pastime.
We let things go to our heads. Why not? Ambition is that strange thing that makes us act like we've been right all along when we succeed. Instantly, it seems, we are ready for the new car, the new furniture and that jewelry we've had our eye on all of our adult lives. Suddenly, the people we used to be seem too small. Of course it works the other way as well. We suddenly find meaning in previously ignored sad songs and wonder why we spent so much on that second pair of shoes. When we realize that the clothes at Costco aren't so bad after all, and we start giving the side-eye to that idiot in the Mercedes. Who does she think she is anyway? Through all of our adaptations, we remain 'good people'. We adjust to our circumstances. If we don't, our friends will tell us, and we work it out with them. We try to make our lives into vectors, but they end up being circles anyway.
The trick I'm trying to accomplish is intellectually easy, but emotionally investing in the discipline is what takes a bit of work. I have been paying attention to Gapminder for many years, so I know for a fact that there are people in this world who live happy middle class peasant lives who save scraps of soap and sleep 3 abed. So I know if push came to shove, I could do the same. But my point is not to prove that I could manage economic troubles, but that I don't confuse affluence with moral superiority. That my tastes are just temporary.
Practically speaking that means that when somebody shows favor for something or someone I find distasteful, I don't want to express my distaste. The difference between distaste and disapproval may not be so far, but from my perspective, disapproval doesn't need to be mentioned unless "I'm making it my business." I'm Stoic, I'm not making it my business. I’m not engaging to turn people’s heads and lives around. I’m engaging because the very fact of people is a compelling thing, because I am people. I want my engagement to be useful and pleasant.
So this is about resisting the temptation to express disapproval, to be above board in your admissions that "That doesn't work for me, but hey." There's probably a less flippant way to say it while being engaged. Stoic shouldn't mean you just sit there and have nothing to say. My way of doing it requires, at this point in my journey, an increasing measure of Zen. By Zen, I mean a lack of attachment to other people's sense of attachment.
I do this in the context of American affluence. I'm not approaching a monastic life. I expect that I will be a patriarch for the rest of my happy life. So I will have responsibilities that will require me to take up someone else's slack. But I want to be good. I want to give up the things that make me petty. Right now that means not pretending to like or tolerate that which I can't stand, but also not initiating the cynical criticism. It’s dealing with the humility of the good fortune to being able to see what greatness truly is. It’s like learning to play Pannonica on the piano. It’s such a beautiful and complex and humbling privilege.
I still think mockery of foolishness is appropriate, but not bitter sarcasm. Still, I haven't drawn a very clear line. It's just the way I'm trying to grow.
So I'm spending Thanksgiving in Medellin Colombia. I'm staying with friends with whom I can only share a fraction of my humor. Not too hard. But walking to the mall and trying to find fresh hot french fries was a task. I'm exercising my primitive Spanish by reading ads on the sides of trucks and paying attention to TV commercials. I'm spitting out 3 word questions and gesturing with my hands. It took 7 minutes of consideration in the matter of asking for ketchup. I enter 'catsup' into my app and it gives me 'gatos'. Para comer a ya? I just make the walking gesture with my fingers. It was my great achievement to bring patas fritas as the light snack before the feast on a breakfastless day.
While my colleague talks about the similarities between the US and Venezuela, I found myself stumbling in saying what I don't like about America. Frankly what I don't like is how snarly we get when we fall below our lines of affluence. How we use our failures to excuse our anti-social behavior. How we excuse the criminal because he is poor. What a foolish romance. But that's not what I really deeply mean. What I mean is that I so much appreciate how well the Colombianos like driving bikes, scooters and clown cars on their narrow roads. How accustomed they have become to a quality of life that is thrifty and full. Yet I hate when idiot politicians in California tax the hell out of gasoline aiming squarely at those they presume to be affluent jerks driving SUVs like mine. If we had to drive these little scooters and motos, we'd be pissed. But we could adjust to the new normal. So I hate myself for hating the authoritarian legislators. All hate is self-hate.
See? That's the meanest thing I can say. Ultimately, I really appreciate happiness on a low budget. It's the spirit I feel in films like Il Postino. Yet we grow so quickly cynical. I saw some clip on Twitter this morning in which some blowhard hurls a stream of 'embarrassing' statistics about America being 27th in math, and 45th in infant mortality and a whole bunch of a tired tirades we've all heard before. I never want to be like that, talking down to some ingénue. Cynicism is not justifiable by failure. We're supposed to adjust. Easy go, easy come. If you're only making it your business to dissuade the hopeful and saying "That's the way of the world, kiddo." you can't possibly be a proper leader. Please don't call this a Stoic attitude. You're just being a bastard.
So if I may invert a little of the Thanksgiving spirit, I think we are just being honest with ourselves for the moment. Whatever our affluent attachments, we admit to ourselves that we can be happy and purposeful. Each time you burp up a little bit of leftover turkey remember that at one time we had the whole bird. Today, no matter what, is the new normal.