Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Unmovable Precept Meets the Irresistible Force

I have a precept I strongly believe in but can't live by.

Most people live in a world of limited lovability. They choose to bask fully in only a very narrow slice, and that slice is their refuge. So there's no greater evil than shaming people for loving the things they love. Snobbery makes another person's world less lovable. 

Consider the ramifications. By pressuring someone to reframe their existence into a grayer, less lovable place, you have essentially imprisoned them. You have damned them.

This is a big reason why I hate snobbery. And it's something I've had to consider and confront, myself, because some people have the mistaken impression that a food critic's opinion trumps their own. So I need to be careful. If you love certain shitty cookies, and I make you feel dumb about that preference, you might never enjoy those cookies in quite the same way (even if you dismiss my opinion). I can spoil things for people, and if those things were a refuge, I've done a terrible thing! Everything we cherish is unimaginably precious.

The proposition of my food writing career (and of Chowhound) was a feat of judo. I tried to re-channel culinary snobbery. Let me trace the evolution:
"Your favorite cookies suck!"

"Your favorite cookies suck but TRY THESE!"

"By all means, enjoy your cookies, but also try THESE (which I'll rave over like a lunatic until you're captivated into trying them)."
Snobbery suppressed, displaced, and transformed. This is how a chowhound scales Maslow's hierarchy of needs. 

Outside of food, though, it is much harder.

Say someone you respect becomes entranced by some flagrant bullshit. It's not seriously harming her - on the contrary, she glows with appreciation for the bullshit. It's a slice of lovability, a refuge. It would be evil to try to dim that light.'s bullshit. So your mission is to maintain tactfulness and avoid telegraphing your disapproval. You must prevaricate. Pose. Patronize. Ugh. Kindness requires bullshitting skills. And thus the stench spreads.

There are other (completely unrelated) issues I grapple with. For example, I have the hardest time remembering to flip my street smarts.
I always figured my street smarts - my ability to instantly know who's who, and what someone's capable of - were a good thing. There's no disputing that they've come in very handy. But I recently realized what street smarts actually are: a nonstop subconscious monitoring and gauging of the very worst in people.

That may sound anxious-making, or even paranoid, but it's actually not. On the contrary, this low-level monitoring makes me feel calmly secure, because I always know what I'm up against. And whereas paranoia is delusional, this scanning provides true, useful info. Much experience over time has borne that out.

I'm not a negative person. This stuff is all unconscious, and it never dominates. Consciously, I appreciate the positive aspects of people I meet. I'd be completely enjoying my conversation with you (not worrying whether you'll attack me!), because you're a nice person! But if the stranger sitting behind you suddenly goes nuts, I'll have spotted him first.

But here's why it's a curse. Human beings have dark depths. Some of us "go there" more easily (and I can smell those people effortlessly). But we also have divine heights. And street-smart people don't monitor for that. There may be conscious appreciation, but it's not part of the humming substructure.

Like most street-smart people, crowds make me edgy. Lots of information, lots of negative potential. But lately I've been experimenting with flipping it. I scan crowd faces (which, if you pay attention, are almost always glum, drained, self-absorbed, burdened, and/or angry in the rich First World), and intuit how close everyone is to erupting into radiant smiles.

It's startlingly, disarmingly easy. To my amazement, it's even true. My radar confirms it's in there! The potential does exist! Always!

And I'm aiming for an even bigger flip. When I talk to people, I'm trying to speak to their latent smile, rather than to their latent darkness. I don't necessarily aim to draw out that smile (which would feel manipulative); I just "get" them in their hidden light, rather than their hidden darkness.

It is, again, surprisingly easy.
Yeah, easy to do (because it's a reframing, and reframing is instant and effortless), but hard to remember to do!

Another one: I cracked the code on producing magic (i.e. transcendent quality), but have been damned by some malign force to repeatedly, stupidly, absurdly keep forgetting. As I wrote here (also see "The Times Everything Worked Out", "Epiphany, Eureka, and Inspiration", "Explaining Steve Jobs", and Every posting tagged "Creativity"):
I used to teach jazz improvisation workshops around Europe. Among my clever exercises and useful bits of advice, the thing that most helped students was a simple, exasperated and brutal observation:
You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?
It struck them like thunder. Every time. And it often stuck with them.

It's devilishly hard to distribute insights evenly into all aspects of one's life. I needed to learn the power of commitment twice; once with music and then again with writing. Now, after a decade of effort to improve my cooking, and feeling that I was still missing an essential piece, it turns out that that piece was my very own signature hard-won lesson. Sigh.
Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?
There's a big difference, however. The above two are precepts I constantly forget to apply. But my non-evil rule is something I wish I could forget.

I took another whack at making this point here.

No comments:

Blog Archive