“Oh, was I talking?” he said with a nervous laugh. “I probably should have used my inside voice. I didn’t mean to offend. Sometimes I just speak without thinking.”
It’s not the first time. He often says things that raise eyebrows. But then it’s partly the company he keeps, a bit of a misfit for this very traditional community; a round peg is a square hole. In a looser community he might fit right in. In a looser community one of his offended traditional neighbors would be the misfit, a square peg in a round hole.
Broadly speaking, some of us must mind our tongues to keep from blurting the gauche and off-color. And some of us must mind our ears more to guard against hearing whatever offends. The blurters are more likely to laugh nervously at what they blurt; the guarders, to swallow nervously at what’s blurted.
In folk psychology, we intuit that there are these two kinds of people. The two go by different names. For example:
Formal vs. informal
Uptight vs. loose
Prudish vs. libertine
Conventional vs. unconventional
Square vs. hippie
Conservative vs. counterculture
Buttoned up vs. hair down
Stuffed shirt vs. casual
Straight vs. cool
Straight-laced vs. easy-going
Shadow-dreaders vs. shadow-embracers
Of course it’s not as simple as this. We all have our don’t-go-there’s, and go-there’s the topics that stress us to talk about and the topics that stress us not to talk about.
Still, I’d bet most of us read each other for general tendencies, deciding who is more closed than open, and who is more open than closed.
Temperament surely plays a role in which camp you end up in, and culture too. Some are born formal or informal, some have formality or informality thrust upon them by their culture, and some become formal or informal as a function of life experiences.
Here’s a speculation about how life experiences can make us formal or informal, a tale of two you’s, one moving toward the formal which I’ll call sweating the petty, and the other moving toward the informal which I’ll call petting the sweaty:
Sweating the petty:
You were just minding your own business, life going well enough, you just following your intuitions.
But then you fell into a deep dark hole, a crisis, a dark night of the soul, a tragedy, a shocking, horrible, unexpected, attrocious something that made your life suddenly wall-to-wall intolerable.
It could have been something as fleeting as a lost job or lost partner, even a lost pet. The point isn’t what it was but where it took you. It took you down, down, down into misery you didn’t know was possible, at least for you. Maybe others suffered like this, but not you. It’s terrifying to discover you’re not exempt. It’s excruciating; soul-crushing.
You somehow managed to scramble out of the hole, perhaps with the help of some body or some body of beliefs. Or maybe you just managed to scramble out by yourself. Either way, nothing feels more urgent than finding a secure tether as far from that hole as you can get, because no way are you ever going to let yourself fall in there again.
So you find yourself a solid steel post planted firmly in the ground, as far from the hole as possible, a post with a chain and a heavy leather strap you can belt around your waist.
Tethered, you still have freedom of motion but within a limited range. And you’re glad it’s limited, because no matter what, you want to stay the hell away from the rim of that hole. Last time you fell far, but not as far as one can. The abyss goes all the way down.
That steel post is your new faith, the belief system that keeps you always safely on solid ground. You once were lost but now you’re found.
It takes vigilance to stay found. Your faith can be eroded, loosening the ground under your feet. Start tolerating the wrong beliefs and you’ll soon find yourself on the slippery slope, slip sliding back toward and then into that hole.
If you were a dog you’d bark at anyone or anything that got near that post with a look of undermining your faith. But you’re not a dog; you’re a human with all of the ingenious rhetorical ways to say “don’t go there” that humankind has ever invented. You can say “that’s inappropriate, unkind, not nice, private, hurtful, wrong, misguided.” Whatever works to ward off evil erosion. Or you can just wince audibly. Or go silent. Or roll your eyes. Or you can proudly reassert your faith whenever anyone gets near it, anything to mark your territory in no uncertain terms, warding off trespassers.
Your faith might be in anything, in Christ’s salvation, in Buddhist meditation, a firm Freudian story about your childhood and what went wrong, a tribal pride, a political ideology, a new self-help philosophy, your commitment to family or friends, or some right way to live, a faith in revelation, logic or science, even paradoxically a firm faith in open-mindedness, non-attachment and non-commitment. No matter what your faith is in, you must always defend it with a white-knuckle grip for dear life. It’s all that prevents you from slipping down that hole.
For you, it’s not all good—far from it. Some ideas are sacred; others are toxic debilitating lies. So even the slightest whiff of the toxic puts you on red alert. The pettiest faith-challenging comment makes you sweat. And well it would, because it could be the beginning of your downfall. You sweat the petty, the every little perturbation. You’re conservative and preservative in your faith, committed to its absolute truths, lest your safe, new born-again life become deformed again with you falling down the hole, your spirit again torn and broken by the hole’s jagged walls.
Mixing metaphors, this is also what I’d call “I once was lost, but now I’m blindered” syndrome, a reference to horse blinders, that eyewear that keep horses from being spooked by anything that would disturb their forward stride. You think “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see,” but actually you see with piercing tunnel vision, blocking out any evidence peripheral to the story you depend on to keep you on your forward stride away from that hell hole.
Petting the sweaty:
Same fall, same hole, same cosmic wedgie, whatever it was that precipitated the fall. Same spirit-crushing experience also.
Maybe even the same hole more than once, the discovery that whichever faith you thought guaranteed you fall-prevention didn’t work.
But somehow you manage more curiosity about the hole, a little less terror, a little more comfort zone to return to once you climbed out of it. Maybe you have a sense that there are absolutely no guarantee against falling again, so you try to get comfortable with the hole’s presence, always lurking there somewhere on the horizon wherever you go.
So rather than turning your back on the hole, in some faith-facing commitment, you keep an eye on the hole, perhaps obsessively so. You talk about it and the dark shadows, sweat and shit that’s down there, nervously of course, since it’s truly scary, but pretending you’re cool with it. Practicing getting cool with the hole. Faking it until you make it to where you’re cool with it, if you ever make it. You pet the sweaty walls of the hole the way one might pet an eel, slime mold, an open wound. It makes you shudder, but for some perverse reason you persist.
You joke nervously about the dark stuff. Sometimes you start out laughing and end up scaring yourself. You use your outside voice, saying inappropriate things, or at least not successful things. In your romances you’re buzzkill, for example joking about the possibility that your partner will leave you or just that things will end and you’ll be back in that hole, the hole you can’t forget. Ha ha, you say but it sounds hollow.
Part of that joking is you just fishing for your partner’s reassurance, but part of it is you just trying to get comfortable with the gaping hole that always lurks nearby.
You lose some friends who decide you’re just too intense, petty-sweating friends just trying to focus on a simpler cleaner interpretation of life, people who come to the decision that you’re a pessimistic mess, a downer.
But eventually maybe all that spelunking down the hole makes its jagged contours more familiar, less threatening. Your joking becomes more relaxed, less nervous. You end up sadder but wiser, more familiar and adapted to the range of what life entails, and not just the life of the less fortunate but your life too, since no one is ever free from the threat the hole poses.
And unlike those who sweat the petty, you have real range of motion. Though they claim that their faith has set them free, they don’t act freely, always warding off evil spells, anything heretical to their sacred faith in whatever they think will save them.
To you, everything becomes sacred text, the sweaty included. Your prayer and spiritual practice is all encompassing. It’s not all pretty, but it’s all pretty interesting.
Some people think that the problem with you is that nothing’s sacred. But it’s actually the opposite. With you everything is sacred, as you pet the exquisitely pristine and the sweaty messy alike. It’s all sacred evidence of what life is like and therefore a path to a wider, more encompassing truth, sweat and all.
If anything you ward off that cheesy, wholesome, hello kitty, petty-sweating world view which has no tolerance for its own sweat. You tease the tediously tethered, and remind yourself that the world is full of a number of things, many of them glorious; many of them horrid.
This is a tale of two personal journeys divergent at a fork landmarked by the same abyss, the petty-sweating heading one way, the sweaty-petting, heading the other. But it can also describe whole cultures, mass movements toward and away from tolerance for the mess.
For example when a cosmic wedgie like Germany’s fall in WWI leads to Nazi petty-sweating absolutism, or when Nazi absolutism leads to my people’s Zionist petty-sweating absolutism.
It may be the same fork that divides us in coming crises, our divergent responses for example to the climate crisis, some of us tightening up in absolutist faith, some of us loosening up and facing into the abyss with seasoned curiosity.
It does suggest that nervous laughter could be means to a healthy coping strategy, a poser’s fake-it-til-you-make-it practice on the way to a genuine poignant belly laugh at the open wound of life, a laugh not because nothing is sacred but because everything is. And isn't.
A few relevant quotes:
"I think there's a personality that goes with this kind of thing, It's people who like process and pattern, as opposed to people who are comfortable with stasis and order. I know that every time in my life that I've run across simple rules giving rise to emergent, complex messiness I've just said, 'Ah, isn't that lovely!' And I think that sometimes, when other people run across it, they recoil." Brian Arthur, Santa Fe Institute
"Sometimes the completely open heart and mind of bhodichitta is called the soft spot, a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound. It is equated, in part, with our ability to love. [...] Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we're arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all." Pema Chodron