Social Graces

Mankind generally needs to share a certain zeitgeist –a certain way of thinking about the world– that suits their time. Last week I wrote about how a parent’s expression of love, a century or more ago, was to keep their child alive. As a result, the zeitgeist was that it was important for children to be tough –to be ready for a world that, up until that time, did not offer much security to the weak or frail.

When we say ‘times are changing,’ what we really mean is that the zeitgeist is changing to suit a new reality –like being food secure, and having medicines that can keep us alive from common ailments that killed previous generations. As a result, survival and toughness are now not as important as our ability to adapt and be cooperative.

Around that time, cities are replacing farms, and many more people are living nearer and nearer each other. And the cooperation part of our humanity hinges on people finding ways to work together. That meant softer, more emotional skills have, for the last 100 years, becoming increasingly valuable, while survivalist skills have become increasingly arcane and irrelevant.

The survivalists aren’t crazy, because those are real skills and things can change quickly. But for most people, the most likely path to success does not come from physical toughness and a suppression of our natural human vulnerability. It comes from the exact opposite; a type of mental toughness that can provide us with a sense of comfort when dealing with the vagaries of human psychology.

Even though this change has been happening for about a century, there were people living with this new zeitgeist before it was practical. And just like they were ‘too soon,’ we can be assured that others will be ‘too late.’ That is to say, there are still people alive today that think there is no greater weakness than showing weakness.

I’ve written about this before. If you have two friends who are struggling, the one to worry about isn’t the one humble enough to ask for help, it’s the one that tries to ‘tough it out’ alone. Yes, there are things we would prefer to sort through on our own. But I’m not talking about those things. I’m talking about the things where help would help.

Every life will include many things that will be handled much more wisely with support. If someone sees weakness as a weakness, and not just another state of being, then they will attempt to suppress and avoid vulnerable emotions, even though they are normal human emotions that we have for good reason.

We all know these people. We’ll say they’re just ‘angry old men/women,’ or that they’re ‘old fashioned’ or that they need to ‘get with the times.’ Their unwillingness and anger can feel frustrating to people who live comfortably in the shifting zeitgeist.

All that said, someone has to be first to change, and someone has to be last, so this group is just as much a part of society as anyone else. And despite their discomfort with emotion, they still deserve our respect as fellow human beings.

The fact that that group is currently famous for making extra ‘noise’ is only because the more outnumbered they are, the more frightened they get. The fear creates the anger, and the intensity creates the noisiness.

The fact that they’re noisy or aggressive or demanding or threatening does not mean that they are not still human beings with all of the same feelings we have. They just have less familiarity with them. Just like people are awkward when they learn to use a hammer, or on their first date, the problem isn’t the person, it’s their lack of familiarity with what they’re being asked to do.

Being tough, capable and resilient is wise. But not if those things only exist to hide our emotional discomfort, or our unwillingness to be wrong, or our fear of asking for help. Then our toughness is just a mask. Without being married to a kind of tenderness, toughness will only get a person so far.

All this being the case, it is wise to avoid meeting aggression with aggression. It only amplifies it by providing it a surface to bounce off of. No one likes a bully. And people really dislike bullies who pick on nice people. That’s the better strategy.

If the people on the front lines of any issue want public support, the way to get it is not to conjure up a really ugly villain. It’s to show patience, respect and compassion to our supposed enemy. We need to recognize their humanity, not deny it exists. Remember: anger is always based on fear. We need to deal with what they are afraid of because only they can stop their own fear.

By showing compassion to an enemy, we weaken the pressure behind their angry stance. And we also signal to others that our issue is not with the person, but the behaviour. If we can keep the two separate, then it’s easier for us and others to see the person’s confusion, and to not mistake that for malice.

peace. s