Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Right Words

I like listening to Mike. He's old school, a hard-working man as well as a thinker. He sometimes puts words together in ways that resonate. Yesterday, he was trying to describe his amazing wife and he hesitated: "I want to say she's stoic, but it's more like, she's tolerant."

Stoic and tolerance as closely related subjects? It didn't compute at first, because 'tolerance' as a word, has picked up some specific connotations. Tolerance of other's beliefs. Tolerance of other's actions. It has the obvious overtones of condescension. 'We are tolerant' means 'we allow' which assumes (at a level so deep that we don't even have to question it) where the power lies. It is one of the fuzzy lies, something the uber-powerful mouth to convince themselves that they are good and the world is equal. It drips with the inherent rights of the powerful. And those who use it most, who insist on it, would never admit this.

There's also the logical hole that if you try to set up a creed that all beliefs have equal value, that creed in and of itself becomes the ultimate value and is its own contradiction.

Because of these two things, tolerance has, in common parlance been associated with one-way interactions (what I say is free speech and should be tolerated, if you disagree you are oppressing me) fuzzy-headed activism and whining.

Doesn't mean this is what tolerance is, this is how I assess the people who I have heard use the word like a weapon.

Stoicism, on the other hand, is a philosophical approach based on accepting life as it is, with all the hardship and suffering inherent in that. Dealing with truth even when unpleasant. Because of the kind of people I see associated with stoicism and tolerance, it didn't compute. Not at first.

But when Mike thoughtfully stumbled over the word choice, things clicked. Stoicism is tolerance. Tolerance of pain, tolerance of disagreement. Tolerance and understanding that all of us will be wrong and tolerance of the pain of admitting when it is us. In the instant he was talking about (the ability to go into a nasty, damp moldy crawlspace with rat poison and Black Widow spiders to get a job done without complaining or stalling or whining) stoicism and tolerance were perfectly in alignment.

Not that different at all. Maybe the same, as long as truth rather than comfort is the cardinal value.

The second example was a perfect example of Conflict Communications principles as well as the difficulty. One of the students from the seminar Saturday has had problems with her boss. They are both highly intelligent and highly competitive people and have a history of blocking each other and cross-talking.

She had an issue and decided just to solve the problem, not to engage in the social dynamics we call the monkey games. The second she made that decision, a part of her brain started arguing, telling her how much status and power she would lose if she didn't get her way...
"Do I want to get my way?" she asked herself, "Or do I want to win?"

She made the decision and got exactly what she wanted with no resistance and even an unaccustomed "Thanks" from the boss. But even then, her limbic system kept trying to tell her that she had lost something, lost some status. Even though everyone saw a win, even though things improved and even though, since she was the one able to alter a pattern to make things better, she clearly showed her leadership. The monkey hates change, including improvement.

That was a subtle distinction, though- get your way or win. Not as much the same thing as we might think.


Anonymous said...

This was a very well-timed post. I just finished reading "The Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius, and it dealt heavily with stoicism. Toleration (or maybe acceptance) is a great way of encompassing what he believed.

Thanks for giving me more to think on.


Anonymous said...

Strange to compliment someone for being a stoic or tolerant...Stoicism took the middle ground of not showing much passion for pleasure or pain. Tolerance is usually associated with unpleasant or painful conditions. Who ever heard of a "tolerance" for joy?

Compliments that I recently heard were: "Some people seem to be comfortable in their own skins." "Some people radiate joy."

Anonymous said...

Oh, and by the way... I am reading Chuang Tzu, especially the little excerpt "The Need to Win".

nry said...

I oft recall my previous job. For years I fought the system as I felt it was wrong and could work better differently. At some point I decided I'd no longer play the game to their rules - altering your concept of a 'win' can have strong repetitions in life and your sanity, usually in a good way!