On Magnanimity

The world has a tendency to overwhelm me. I get caught up in this and that — romantic stresses, hypochondriacal spells, financial woes. Sometimes, there are what we might consider bigger problems such as the death of someone close or the struggles of my kid. In all cases, I strive for equanimity: being calm, cool, and collected (mind you, I usually fail).

To enjoy equanimity is to be equal to the world — to be congruent, as my shrink would say. It’s what Nietzsche would call being equal to your accidents. It’s to feel that all is as it should be, regardless of how intense or seemingly awful, and hence to wish it no other way. Life is what happens so there’s no need getting worked up.

But then there is magnanimity. It’s a surprisingly tough word to say which seems apropos: it’s a surprisingly tough state to achieve. If equanimity is how you stand towards yourself, being equal to your own accidents, magnanimity is how you stand towards others, allowing others their accidents. If equanimity is letting yourself happen in the world, magnanimity is letting others happen in the world. It is a supreme social and existential generosity.  

A friend told me this story the other day. His son called him many years ago — the son was in his 30s at the time — and let loose a rant. You were a lousy father. You abandoned us. You're selfish and horrible and I don't want you in my life at all — no letters, emails, or phone calls. No contact at all!

This was, of course, an exceedingly painful thing for my friend to hear. But he didn't interrupt. He didn't argue. He didn't offer explanations or excuses. At the end of his son's 20-minute rant, he said, May I say one thing? I am your father and I will always love you. I respect your feelings and will stop contacting you. When he told me this story, I thought: That is magnanimity.

As his son yelled, my friend could have, and indeed was expected, to yell back. Or at least to engage the rant, to offer his defense, to stammer and apologize, as if it were a courtroom and he needed to mount his defense. But what my friend did is spectacular. He chose not to engage on the immediate terms of the engagement but to engage on the broader, more emotionally resonant level. His son, for a variety of reasons both apparent and not, needed to vent, to be angry, to cut off contact with his father. And his father, lovingly, let him.

The fact is that our response to others' immediate terms of engagement is less ethical than it is aesthetic: it is a temptation. It's more tempting than sex, food, or drugs. Someone says something and our first response is precisely to respond, to react. Someone asks a question, we answer. Someone yells, we yell back. I am always struck by the fact that if someone cuts me off when I'm driving and I honk, they give me the finger. It's not an ethical, contemplative response. They see my honking as a provocation and, without thinking, reply in kind. Over the years, I’ve learned to respond differently: I try to meet a driver’s anger with calm and generosity (try being the key word). 

This is perhaps the greatest temptation of life: to react immediately to stimuli. This is Nietzsche’s definition of the slave mentality: to be reactive, constantly responding to what other people say and do until you don't exist. You become a pinball, hitting off the last bumper; a zombie; an absence. 

Magnanimity asks us to do otherwise. It asks us to engage others not on the immediate linguistic or emotional terms. It asks that we survey the wider psycho-existential and rhetorical expanse of what's being asked for and what’s being asked of us. And then, rather than jockeying for position, magnanimity asks one more thing. It asks that we be generous.

To be magnanimous is to honor the other's state of being. Rather than defending, attacking, or parrying the words and actions of another, magnanimity allows words and actions — allows other people — to happen as they will, sees them as necessary and, in their own way, beautiful. 

We've all had this experience of a parent, child, sibling, lover screaming at us out of frustration, anxiety, even well deserved anger (my friend's son was not wrong in his accusations of his father). We can, and often do, reply in kind. They yell; we yell. But magnanimity replies otherwise: it lets it all happen, lets the other person be, lets the other person express, feel, live while we bear witness.  

What's tricky about magnanimity is that it can look like indifference. This is particularly difficult when dealing with your child. Your son is yelling at you. Shouldn't you try to calm him? Soothe him? Somehow help him? Yes, and that is precisely what magnanimity does. But rather than forcing him to be calm and cool — which is impossible —, magnanimity performs calm and cool. Rather than proffering a salve, magnanimity is the salve. Magnanimity doesn't say I don't care. On the contrary, it says I care absolutely. In the place of retaliation or even help, magnanimity offers the sweeping embrace of love and respect. It offers the understated grandeur of a respectful presence, without agenda, need, or pressing desire. 

This doesn't mean to be cold. You can be hurt and sad by what someone else says or does. To be magnanimous means not letting those emotions get the best of you. It means letting the feelings happen — that's equanimity. And then letting the other person be: that's magnanimity.

Am I saying that we should just watch as others suffer? Of course not. There are obviously times actively to intervene, to stop someone from doing something. Magnanimity is not a demand or fixed law. Like all things, it has its time and place. But in everyday social interactions, especially with loved ones, magnanimity often goes a far way. 


Jim H. said...

I'll never forget the day I learned to "listen". Active listening is a learned skill. It involves work. It's akin to the Freudian analyst avoiding countertransference, yet practicing empathy—except in miniature, in everyday life and not necessarily for therapeutic purposes. And, I agree, it's a magnanimous gift to another, a setting aside of one's self in all its ego and emotion.

We're always so busy trying to get our point across (eh? Rhetor) or expressing our own aggrieved feelings or hurt or confusion, pressing our own agendas, that we don't have time or energy to listen to others.

Before one can understand another, one has to be able to listen to them.

And then, to receive the same gift in return, to find/have someone who listens to you—ah! that's a rare pleasure beyond words. It signals a level of intimacy that, frankly, most folks simply can never attain. It opens up new pathways for confidence.

panvega said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Two pieces have been inspirational for me in this.
One is a modern love column: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/fashion/02love.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
And the other is a poem by Marie Howe: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/after-movie


Daniel Coffeen said...

Excuse my delay...I've been traveling. Jim, as always, I love this. And your parenthetical is spot on: I definitely focus on being heard rather than listening — and then insisting that I be heard by repeating myself. It's not pretty. I am a poor listener but I am trying to mend my ways.

Hope: So nice of you drop in! Thank you, thank you, truly. Both of these are incredible. My original version of this essay was much more like the NYT piece, focusing on those moments with my kid and lovers. I opted for more abstraction; this modern love piece is better, fleshing out what I tried to say. It's a great piece.

As for the poem, I fucking love it.

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