I used to play catch with my eldest son, a most excitable boy with ambitions to be a baseball player. Sometimes he was at the top of his game, but when he wasn’t, frustrations would build and he’d end up apoplectic. I’d call to him from across the field, “You’re learning two separate games. How to play your best when winning and how to play your best when losing.”
A friend of mine is devoted to a guru who counsels on how to find inner peace. This friend’s sister has a body wracked with disease, and she’s not as impressed. “Yeah,” she’ll say, “your guru is peaceful but look at her cushy circumstances. Staying calm like her is like running fire drills when you know nothings burning. It tells you little about how calm she’d be under fire.”
I got to hang out with Ram Das for a while, at heart an irreverent old fart Jew like me. One time he was extoling the virtues of selflessness and I had to ask. “Yes but tell me, is there room at the top for more nobodies like you?” It’s easy to be humble when the world showers you with ample evidence that you’re wonderful. It’s harder to feel like a nobody when you’re invisible.
Two homeless men are sitting on a park bench:
Hey if you had two houses would you give me one?
And if you had two cars would you give me one?
Of course. We’re good friends.
And if you had two pairs of shoes would you give me one?
Because I’ve GOT two pairs.
In parallel, being peaceful and generous in a safe situation is easy. Like pledging a house you don’t own, you’ve got nothing to lose. But when you’re in real danger, it’s a whole other game.
Now we may talk as though we’re at peace more, when we’re stressed. Comedian/Senator Al Franken’s character Stuart Smalley captured this dynamic beautifully, a stress puppy frantically reciting daily affirmations in a desperate attempt to stem the tide of anxiety engulfing him.
We say what we need to hear. To Shakespeare’s “damning with faint praise,” there’s a reciprocal effect: “Praising with fierce condemnation.” Enmity is often a product of vulnerability. When I’m feeling safe and secure in my own position I don’t yell back at people who attack me. I yell back with fierce condemnation when I feel shaky.
People could misread my calm response as inherent peace of mind, but no, it’s mostly circumstantial. Put me at risk and I’ll be much more prone to yell.
I ask friends for a definition of mindfulness, and many have suggested that mindful people are calm, not exciteable, like gurus at peace. To me though that’s mostly same calm we see on powerful, protected and intransigent tyrants. The Guru is not under threat. He can afford to be calm. His audiences are eager to see him stay calm, they encourage and invite his calm, they lob him softball questions, so it’s especially easy.
The tyrant can afford to stay calm also. His victims are agitated and understandably so. But why would Assad get ruffled? He’s playing what for now is a winning game. No doubt when he starts losing (let it be soon!) we’ll see how little of equanimity was a function of character. Like Gadhafi he’ll be frantic in the end.
I’ve scanned the literature and so far I haven’t found the name for a bias that deserves one. So I’ll tentatively call it Counselor Bias: It’s the impression that we’re calm reasonable people, gained by giving calm reasoned counsel to people in stress, forgetting that reasoning when calm and reasoning when stressed are really two different games.
When we counsel “If I were you…” what we generally mean is “If I were in your situation, facing your rational options with your general preferences.” because those are the parts of a person’s situation that are easiest for us to model mentally. It’s much harder to model intense emotional turmoil, and besides we’d rather not, thank you.
When we say ‘If I were you” we tend therefore not to mean also, “And if I were experiencing the emotional turmoil that you’re experiencing…” Ignoring the way that we don’t factor in the turmoil, we end up feeling more rational than we are, more rational than we would be were we really were in their situation, turmoil and all.
Business consultants, editors, psychotherapists, social workers, teachers, we all are prone to counselor bias. With less skin in the game we pretend we’re putting ourselves in the shoes of people with more skin in the game. We can’t believe how irrational they are, and we’re impressed by how rational are in comparison. Counselor Bias comeuppance arrives when we find ourselves in similar situations to theirs. Then what consolation is our supposed all-weather rationality?
One argument I’ve heard for spiritual practices is that they prepare you for just such rough situations ahead. If you meditate every day for ten years, then you’ll be able to keep from losing your mind if you end up with horrific cancer. I think I invested in my philosophical interests for a similar reason—the consolations of philosophy I thought would carry me through tough times.
But all the people I know who have undergone terrific stress or are still in it say nope, they gain little comfort or peace from the equanimity they cultivated during times of peace. The simulated fire drills don’t do much to keep them calm during their fires.
I believe them. I’m impressed by how little my hard-earned equanimity helps even in what relatively modest turmoil I’ve suffered in the 15 years. It’s humbling to realize that. And humbling is good.