The election season has made me question the value of self expression. I’m experimenting with the idea that it just may be better to say as little as possible in public, about anything.
When I first lived in the District I learned quickly that discussions about political issues and personalities were considered declasse among those who lived here. Oh, there were plenty of people who got mad at the Metro, or the behavior of some public officials. But few exhibited the frothy fury that has become so ordinary on the Internet. Among those I met employed in government, in think-tanks and retail shops, the strategy was to sit back and try to look, not at who is making so much noise, but whatever it was who inspired that person to make the noise.
And say as little as possible. Not only did you never know whom you may be working for in D.C., you didn’t know whom you may be working with.
Anyone in power D.C., no matter how little that person seemed to deserve that power, was treated with deference, especially after an election, when divisive issues and righteous rage had to be replaced with conciliatory respect for “consensus” and “shared values.” Hatchets were not only buried, but bitter enemies behaved as if they had never brandished them–and for a very good reason. Politics then and now (though it may not appear that way) is about getting things done. You didn’t have to read Machiavelli to know that the acquisition of power is temporary. What you do with what you have, when you have it, can encourage people to forget what you had to do to get that power and keep it.
Alas, the Internet is overrun with individuals and organizations who have found ways to make a living keeping track of how elected officials respond to every political issue that blows in, out or somewhere in space. These score keepers tend to be see those in power as either for ’em, or agin ’em. To err may be human, but mistakes made in the political arena are never permitted to go away. Forgiveness and compassion are perceived as weaknesses. A politician who changes her mind is simultaneously praised for coming to her senses, and damned as a disloyal, untrustworthy “flip flopper.”
The result of so much score keeping has been to make representative democracy much more perilous. It has created a miserably deadlocked Congress, and stoked a turbulent anger among so many different social groups that we are no longer shocked at the almost daily violence against police, minorities, women, old people, disabled people, innocents who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, poor people, teachers and those whose practice of a religion makes them a bit more obvious than those who don’t.
When the violence strikes, too many people have too much to say, and the result of so much expression is to use up energy that, in a quieter world, we would have used to grieve, to heal, to find in ourselves the values that lead to the mutual respect that can bring people together.
How ironic that I should come to this observation, having spent my youth during a period of social upheaval, when “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Is that true? Sometimes. Is it always true? No. Sometimes we cannot identify a causal connection to a troublesome situation. Other times, we wish we were part of something larger that can solve problems and make things better. We may not know how, but we should make some kind of effort.
I was raised to be an expressive person. Though I am actually quite shy, I discovered the actor’s ability to ignore that shyness if I had a role to play, or something to say to an audience whose response would render a judgement. I found this useful in high school stage plays, journalism and teaching.
But it also developed in me a lingering contempt for those who did not value, or who denigrated what I said or did. The trap of this almost-but-not-quite narcissistic behavior is to base ones sense of self on how others respond. I’ve interviewed hundreds of comedians, entertainers, musicians, artists and writers who could not get out of this.
If we give ourselves a chance to find, somewhere close to that immeasurable thing we call our soul, a sense of self worth, we can then go on to craft an anchor that we may lower in the storm of public opinion. I still have problems with this. I’m easily pleased by those who like what I do. I’m a sucker for applause.
And I can’t help but feel bad when I see the few negative reviews about my work that still cling to my book web pages like bird droppings on a windshield.
I used to think that I’d have a sense of self worth when I’d achieved things. It’s taking me a while to discover that self worth does not come from having money in the bank, or reciting a Shakespearean sonnet, performing a karate kata almost perfectly, making a good loaf of bread or any other kind of accumulated sense of accomplishment. Goals come and go. What I wanted for myself as a young man is not the same as what I wanted as a teenager, or as the adult I’ve become.
Let us not forget that, sometimes accomplishing nothing can be better than forcing yourself down the wrong path.
But if I’ve been to that peaceful, watchful, inner place enough to know that it is a source of strength. You can turn to it almost any time (though it’s very easy to forget that when you’re caught up in emotional turbulence). It doesn’t cost anything. It’s that gift of discovering who you are, and being satisfied with that.
Such satisfaction can make it easier to hold your tongue just long enough to relish the silences between thoughts, words, statements, opinions.
Socrates infamously stated of himself (if we’re to believe Plato) that he could not live in Athens as an active participant in civic affairs. He needed moments of privacy and reflection. Without them, he would have the unexamined life that he insisted was “not worth living.”
It’s a mistake to tell angry people that they could be doing something other than shooting off their mouths. It’s also a mistake to ignore them. Somewhere, in this extraordinarily divisive election season, a path exists by which we can get things done.
I’m not sure where this path leads, but I know where it begins.