2. Be patient As the Biblical injunction provides, all things good come to those who wait. This precondition for good temperament has two elements to it: time and wisdom. Part of wisdom is the understanding that active listening is a form of generosity, a key element in a mature temperament. Waiting for the other point of view, the various possible perspectives, or even the depletion of emotion, takes discipline.
Deferring to the other also allows the settlement of what one might call the heart’s intuitions. As Pascal said: “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” This is behind the ancient nursery rhyme:
There was an old owl that lived in an oak The more he heard, the less he spoke The less he spoke, the more he heard Oh if only more folks were like that wise old bird…
The other aspect of patience has to do with one’s use of time. I remember reading in school that Marcus Aurelius, the brilliant Roman general of the second century, would take along a separate tent, candles and writing materials on his campaigns. Each night, no matter how difficult or bloody the day had been, he would retire to this private place and think, collecting his thoughts and writing them down. Some of his brilliant insights appear in his Meditations. In other words, creating the time and space to think things through is essential to understanding, and bespeaks the necessary patience to acquire it.
3. Be respectful. The third canon involves taking responsibility, deference, tolerance and good manners. The latter is a visible signal that respect is operating as a channel for all else. There’s a wonderful insight from Shaw in Pygmalion that better expresses the point:
The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.
There is a difference between deference and servility. There are many instances in which it is both fair and appropriate to defer to the views of another, without the question of who is right being necessarily decided. This routinely occurs in politics, friendships, marriages and other relationships, in which the damage done by intransigence is far worse than that which may occur by deference. Sometimes it is not always enough—or even important—to be right on an issue.
Beware the person with an infantile sense of justice. The maturity to take responsibility for what is essentially a moral duty to defer in some circumstances is, in many respects, the hardest thing for children to learn, as it engages their sense of fairness. Pasternak (To Friends East and West) captures the lesson:
He comes as a guest to the feast of existence, and knows that what matters is not how much he inherits, but how he behaves at the feast, and what people remember and love him for.
In my next post, I’ll formulate three rules for good thinking.