Sunday, April 1, 2012

Responding to Negativity

Freedom of Association
"You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with."
—Jim Rohn

I posit any time you have any choice whatsoever in the company you keep, you are faced with making a decision that can and does shape the course of your life. To wit, it seems logical to postulate that a lack of familial freedom of association is a major contributing factor to inter-generational poverty. I.e., if poor children could simply decide to be raised by rich families, they would not only have all the advantages of a more comfortable upbringing and extensive education but would effectively inherit the habits of their new parents. Poor children think, plan and act like their poor parents. Rich children too have all the thoughts, plans and actions of their rich parents. This is a less obvious reason the children of the poor generally grow up to work for the children of the rich, even in a "land of opportunity" like America. Poverty and wealth are not simply conditions but learned sets of behavior. Accepting this, I quickly realized the same is true of what can be described as emotional poverty and wealth.

I have known people who simply never complained about anything, ever. People who always seem to be in a good mood; who have problems just like anyone else but seem to handle them better than anyone and move forward unfazed. I'm sure you have known these people as well. Tragically, I'm sure you've encountered their polar opposite with much greater regularity. Idiot family members, imbecilic classmates, sulky co-workers, unbearable in-laws...there's no shortage of opinionated, mean, nigh unbearable malcontents in this world. If you are like most people, you will be forced to interact with many of them at various point in your life, both personally and professionally. This is not merely exhausting and unpleasant; it is downright dangerous.

Emotional Cowardice: The Mother of Hatred and Cynicism
Negative people are unhappy people and they are more unhappy with themselves than anyone around them. Unfortunately, the cantankerous tend to be dishonest with themselves and I have a hard time distancing this dishonesty from a withering cowardice. Christopher J. Priest explains:
"I know people so incredibly handicapped by emotional cowardice, they tend to invent surreal scenarios: Bizarro World latticework of a fragmented, delusional non-reality where they are the hero of their own story and whatever ultimately ridiculous and extreme betrayal of faith they commit becomes somehow justified by my motives- which they've invented in their head. Much simpler to walk out on your wife than say, "Sorry." Much simpler to invent some scenario where she had it coming."
The Gospel of George

I base this not only on observation but personal experience. I have been a very mean, judgmental, unappreciative person. I have walked many miles in the shoes of a miserable wretch. You don't get there and stay there without blaming other people for your unhappiness, generally anyone unfortunate enough to cross your path. And while I genuinely wish these curmudgeons the best, I've found it is best to do so from a safe distance.

Your Moment of Choice
Like many, I have made the mistake of responding to negative people, both face to face and online, with like negativity upon occasion. Or, more laudably, with positivity and the earnest belief that I could open someone's eyes to a new way of perceiving the world. Over time I began to realize neither is an effective protocol for growth or even self preservation, however noble the motives. Allow me to draw an analogy...

You are walking peacefully through a park one day when you are ambushed by a lunatic wielding a flamethrower. Thankfully you see this violent sicko coming and have time to react. And lo! Looking around, you notice this stretch of park is but a stone's throw from a pair of stores. One sells flamethrowers, the other fire extinguishers. Let's examine both options.

You're not this stupid...are you?
Option A - The Flamethrower: While it's very easy in the cool and calm of a moment free from impending conflict to tell yourself you have the good sense to never even think of picking up the flamethrower, much anecdotal experience suggests that this is seldom the case. You're a human and humans suffer from a problem "lesser" evolved creatures don't appear to—gross ego interference. It's not that you want to be strong, it's that you want to be stronger than this person who has challenged you. This feeling is common and to some extent, almost unavoidable. But make no mistake, this is indeed suicide from any rational perspective. Yes, you're likely to get some licks in, maybe even take them with you, but so what? You're still going to die. Even if you "win," i.e., hurt them worse than they hurt you, whatever petty satisfaction you get is going to be offset by the terrible and lasting injuries you are sure to sustain. Gandhi said it best, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind."

Option B - The Fire Extinguisher: It seems logical to fight fire by simply attempting to put it out before it can harm you or anyone else. There are problems with this course of action as well though. The first being you are still making the conscious decision to engage in conflict; you are still playing their game even if you believe it's on your own terms and turf. The more dangerous mistake is that every extinguisher has its limits. You have a finite "coolness" and when it's gone, you are in serious danger. If you are like most people, you are not as emotionally in control as you would like to think you are and worse, you are almost always underestimating your opponent. Or more accurately, underestimating the danger of being in proximity to that which possesses your opponent...

Hatred Outlives the Hateful
Negative experiences are very dense; it can take 8 years of therapy to undo 8 minutes of being raped. As a more mundane example, look no further than the news...any news. Following the news can distort your perception of the world very potently as the overwhelming majority of stories are centered on hatred, violence and death. Most news networks won't report on any of the 5,000,000+ people volunteering in some capacity to serve humanity but they will report on the suicide bomber who killed 50 in Iraq this morning. Think about it—the absolute worst 1% of the world's population receives the lion's share of the world's attention at any given time. Hatred, malevolence, death and suffering are just that potent. If you are like most people, your back just isn't broad enough to bear the burden of being the fire fighter. So what option does that leave you?


I have concluded non-response is the only acceptable response to negativity. Leave the psycho with the flamethrower to his own uncontrollably violent insanity long enough and he'll burn himself to a crisp. This will happen with absolutely certainty whether you are there burning with him or not. You see, you don't need to punish him for attempting to attack you. His punishment is already upon him. Paraphrasing the Buddha, he is not being punished for his hatred, he is being punished by his hatred. The misery of being a hateful, joyless wretch is far harsher justice than any you can mete out. So flee. Just go. Walk away. Put as much space between yourself and the baneful as possible, even if mitigating circumstances limit that to sitting on the far side of the room or donning a set of headphones. Or even—gasp—walking away from an internet message board flame war.

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