Happiness Project: “Let It Go”

For context, click here. And the rest of my “Happiness Project” posts are available here.

Rubin’s second personal commandment is “Let it go.” In other words:

“One of my resolutions is “Remember how little most things matter in the long run.” Also, I’m trying to be less defensive when I make mistakes.

I hate to be wrong, I hate to screw up, I hate to forget to do something ““ and it really bothers me when I do. I want to bore everyone with my endless explanations, justifications, and excuses.”

My first reaction to this commandment is that this is not really a problem I have, but I think this had more to do with the nature of the example she gives (screwing up something about the invitations to her child’s birthday party).

But as I think about it a little more, I think that one area in which I need to learn to “let it go” is in my online writing, and in discussions about politics and social policy.

To start with the online writing: in addition to this blog, I write the Missoula Notebook for New West and Went West for the Washington Times Communities.

And sometimes I LOSE MY MIND when someone dares to leave a comment disagreeing with me. I take it so personally sometimes that it makes me wonder if maybe I should stop writing on the internet. Just like with comments left anywhere on the internet, mine are almost never worth reading, but read them I do. Sometimes I respond with the first thing that comes into my head, which is invariably a mistake, and sometimes I spend hours or even days crafting a devastating response to something that some aggressive, anonymous troll tossed off in seconds and never gave a second thought to. (Even worse is when the critical commenter actually knows what he or she is talking about. I HATE THAT!)

I’ve taken steps to minimize my contact with comments on my New West columns, partly by hardly ever writing any columns, but mainly by setting up a filter in Gmail so that my comment notifications don’t show up in my inbox. And I’m extremely grateful that the Washington Times Communities doesn’t even offer this “service,” so I have to go actually check for comments. (Well, some well-meaning tech guy set me up an RSS feed, but I don’t open my NetNewsWire reader very often, so I’m relatively safe.)

This delaying tactic is a good first step. I find that if I don’t find out about a comment seconds after it arrives, my reaction tends to be more measured.

But it doesn’t get at the root of the problem, which is that I need to take things less personally.

Of course, it would help if I tried not to write in the mode of “internet instant expert.” As I’ve touched on elsewhere, something happens to me when I am writing some of these columns: I slide into the voice and style of writers I enjoy, who devastate their opponents with erudition, rhetoric, and expertise. And, in my case, this means that I tend to sound more certain than I really am about some of this stuff.

Having had some experience now of what goes into producing columns on a regular basis, I suspect that this may in fact also describe some of the very writers I am imitating, but since I don’t know that for a fact, I’ll reserve judgment and give them the benefit of the doubt.

In fact, perhaps “benefit of the doubt” needs to be a component of my version of Rubin’s “Let it go” commandment, which could then be worded something like “don’t ascribe to malice what can be explained by [insert more innocent explanation here].” Or maybe, “don’t assume malice.” Or maybe I’ll just stick with, “Give the benefit of the doubt.”

I need to do this in more than just my online writing. Last night, during Obama’s speech, the camera paused on Susan Collins, the Senator from Maine who “negotiated” with the Democrats for so long on health care, got basically every concession she asked for, and then withdrew her support anyway because the bill was “moving too fast.” In other words, it is fair to say that it is partly a result of her actions that this bill wasn’t passed a long time ago.

Anyway, when the camera paused on her, I identified her for Amy and used an unkind word as I did so.

After the speech, I apologized to Amy and pledged to start working on biting my tongue in such situations, because I don’t want my son to ever hear me accord my fellow citizens’ elected representatives any less respect than at least their office deserves. I’ll always feel free to call them on inconsistencies, contradictions, hypocrisy, and the like, but in my house we’re not going to stand for contemptuousness, and we are going to bend over backwards to think of possible explanations that don’t assume malice.[1]

I think that it is this kind of attitude that is part of what I most admire in Obama himself. As satisfying as it would have been-as deserved as it would have been-to see him devote most of his speech to railing at the Republicans for their refusal to assist in running the country over the last year, it would have achieved absolutely nothing productive.

I admire Obama for reminding us of the more positive aspects of the old saying “politics is the art of the possible.” Often this is a cynical statement, or at least is used to excuse inaction. But in Obama I think we can see an example of what it looks like when someone keeps his eye firmly on what is possible (what professional negotiators call the “zone of possible agreement,” through negotiation, concession, conversation, and teamwork.

Through acting like an adult.

Which I guess is what I’m really after.

1. And we’re going to eat our vegetables, too!

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