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Michael Sigman

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And Now for Something Completely Indifferent

Posted: 02/17/2012 4:13 pm

Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.
-- Albert Einstein

I'm no Buddhist. (Then again, neither was the Buddha.) But you don't have to meditate to see that in satisfying our innate desire to make lists, Buddhism can be a virtual insight machine. From the List of One to the Four Noble Truths to the Eightfold Path to the 37 Factors of Enlightenment (a list of lists that includes the Seven Limbs of Enlightenment), Buddhism serves up a panoramic range of wisdom about what makes us humans tick.

My favorite Buddhist list is the Four Sublime States: unconditional love, compassion, joy at the good fortune of others and equanimity. Each comes with a "near enemy," a state that masquerades as sublime while being anything but -- and a "far enemy," its opposite quality. So, compassion's near enemy is pity, which looks an awful lot like compassion, while cruelty serves as its far enemy.

Of the Four Sublimes (a great name for a doo wop quartet) equanimity -- with its near enemy, indifference, and its far enemy, agitation -- might be the most instructive. Your dog dozing under the piano bench is equanimous; your cat staring blankly from the window sill is indifferent; the ants in the sink you just Ajaxed are agitated. The Dalai Lama is equanimous; Camus' The Stranger personifies indifference. Woody Allen is agitated.

Agitation is a condition familiar to all of us. Indifference is more subtle and therefore potentially more dangerous, and not just because it masquerades as equanimity. It's dangerous because it can produce paralysis. For Aristotle -- whose "divisions" can be seen as a profound Western counterpoint to all those Buddhist lists -- indifference produces "the man who, though exceedingly hungry and thirsty, and both equally, yet being equidistant from food and drink, is therefore bound to stay where he is."

Equanimity (which has been defined as "not reacting to your reactions") and its enemies can be useful in analyzing this year's presidential contest. Part of what attracts Americans to President Obama is his equanimity -- he's handled crisis after crisis with a cool intensity that shows he cares but is never overwhelmed by anxiety. Sure, there's aloofness at work, but even fair-minded conservatives understand that the Right's effort to position the president as arrogant is just silly. The guy is as unflappable as any president in our lifetimes.

The GOP has rejected the equanimity -- or maybe just the dullness -- of Tim Pawlenty, while the relatively calm Mitch Daniels and Jeb Bush, perhaps due to the rightward lurch of the party, have stayed on the sidelines. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain displayed a different kind of indifference: obliviousness to the outside world. For agitation, see Donald Trump.

The president's most likely general election opponent, the "severely conservative" Mitt Romney, shows a deliberate indifference to such facts as, say, that the economy produced more jobs under Obama in just one year (2010) than under eight years of Bush. The Mittsterizer also seems indifferent to the whole concept of principled action. Or maybe he's just ignoring it.

The other top GOP contenders -- the surging Rick "guillotine" Santorum and Newt "Democrats are as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or communism" Gingrich -- are the Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum of agitation. Ron Paul is Ron Paul.

When it comes to voting, there's evidence that making equanimous decisions is difficult if not impossible. In his 2007 book The Political Brain, psychology professor/political analyst Drew Westin cites brain research to argue that we cast our ballots based on emotion, not rational thought. Republican presidential candidates prevail more often than not, Westin says, because they know how to cultivate such feelings as fear and anxiety while Democrats -- with their sense that voters are computational devices in need of facts and figures -- are left in the dust.

Conventional wisdom holds that many if not most of today's 20-somethings don't care about electoral politics -- and won't be voting for president in 2012 -- because they are indifferent to the world around them. (Of course, there are plenty of politically passionate young people, such as the ones who inspire and populate the Occupy! movement). But maybe what passes for cool indifference is really an affectation that covers the terror of caring too much and being disappointed.

In any case, ironic distance ain't what it used to be. A large percentage of America's under-30 cohort may have zero interest in the presidential race, but they care a great deal about making the world a better place, whether it's through teaching yoga, making art or getting involved in their immediate communities. There's a powerful kind of equanimity in that.

 

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