Note: I must be rusty. I sent out a truncated version of this article yesterday. Apologies. Here’s the whole article.
I’ve been writing as much as ever, but mostly just posting articles at Psychology Today. I’m going to start sending regularly through MRD again. Best, Jeremy
I collect role models, sometimes for a specific reason. For example, as I age I look up to still older friends who somehow manage to sustain a young adult’s playful vitality. I keep negative role models nearby too, buffoons of one species or another, with traits close enough to mine that they haunt me productively with evidence of what I could become if I don’t watch out.
There’s one kind of role model about whom all I could say until now was that they were charismatic. Yesterday I think I decoded what makes them so appealing to me. I’d say they’re fool efficient.
There are two opposite ways to honor people’s whose thinking style and ideas, seem foolish to us, one by engaging their ideas at face value, challenging them where we find them faulty, the other by disengaging, being polite and circumspect.
To engage honestly or disengage politely? That is the question. It’s not easy knowing when to do which. Both responses are virtues in the right situation. It’s like the serenity prayer: wanting the serenity to accept a mind you can’t or shouldn’t try to change, the courage to change the mind you can or should try to change and the wisdom to know the difference.
Those two virtues count as vices too. When, to some people’s taste we are too engagedly honest, we’re called aggressive, pushy, a pain in the ass, having the courage to try to change what they think we can’t or shouldn’t try to change. When to some people’s taste we are too disengagedly polite, we’re accused of humoring, patronizing, dissembling, having the serenity to not try changing what they think we can or should try to change.
We’re taught to speak our minds but kindly, to be honest yet tactful, but rarely with acknowledgement that when our honest opinion is unsupportive it can be difficult if not impossible to come across as both honest and kind.
If we could always be at once serene and courageous we wouldn’t pray for the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for one or the other. Likewise if we could always be honest and tactful we wouldn’t need the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for the other. But we do.
I admire these role models, both for their wisdom to know when to engage and disengage and for the virtuosity with which they act on that wisdom, shifting in and out.
I’m fascinated and impressed by their deft use of the social clutch pedal. They engage and disengage cleanly, sometimes on a dime. They engage wholeheartedly, both receptive and assertive, and then when they decide it’s not worth it, they seem to disengage effortlessly and silently, their confidence unshaken, not a flinch on their faces. They pick their battles, super-battles and sub-battles with extraordinary aplomb and there’s nothing jerky about how they advance or retreat.
They’re cool, but not in that thoroughly disengaged way. They’re cool with their heat, exhibiting fuel efficiency in how they suffer fools. I always liked a line by Alan Watts defining the aim of Taoism as “knowing the patterns structures and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy dealing with them.” The fool efficient are good at precisely that. They expend energy, but efficiently like drivers who feather the clutch flawlessly.
My clutch foot is a little more sluggish. I end up crunching gears sometimes. We can tell that a social clutch is sluggish by the noise it makes on disengagement. If someone has to say, in so many words or with so many exasperated eye rolls, “I’m disengaging,” they’re conveying an oxymoronic message. “I need you to hear that I no longer need you to hear me.”
The human vocabulary of words and gestures is rich but perhaps nowhere more rich than in ways to give voice to the sluggish clutch, ways to say a politely disengaging “I’ll give you space” yet also an engaged “I’m disgusted and want you to know it.” “Whatever,” is a good example.
My charismatic role models don’t necessarily clutch where I would. One of them is more assertive than I would be; another is less assertive, but both are masters of the clutch, fascinating to watch go deadpan polite on a dime when they’ve decided to let go.
I’m also interested in the mechanisms by which we decide to engage or disengage. Imagine that you’re listening to someone’s specific declarations and then at some point your attention shifts to broader analysis of the person’s overall character. When we’re engaged we’re in among the trees, the person’s specific ideas. When we disengage we’ve leapt to something about the forest, the person’s beliefs, perspective and nature.
We know what it’s like when such shifting is abused. For example “You believe gays should be allowed to marry? You must hate America, God and humankind.”
Still the clutch they’re abusing is the same clutch we each control, engaged or disengaged depending on where we think the action is, the details or the general character.
We get mixed messages from society about the clutch. We’re taught to be engaged with everyone always. Everyone deserves to be heard. Give people your attention, and feel free to speak your mind in response. You owe people the respect of both listening and responding honestly. We’re also taught not to care what other people think, live and let live, agree to disagree and be polite about it.
I agree with both admonishments whole-halfedly. I study and practice fool efficiency, and as with anything I study always looking for good role models.