It's not often that I find my thoughts aligned so thoroughly with those expressed by the New York Times conservative columnist, David Brooks. Still less often might I feel inclined to link to his column, unless to point out my disagreement. Today, though, is an exception. Suffering Fools Gladly takes on the issue of good manners, of simple politeness, the ability to refrain from the smart retort to a person one considers, in one's infinite wisdom, to be foolish.
As Brooks points out, we tend to think it a compliment to say of someone that "he doesn't suffer fools gladly." That person, we suggest, is tough-minded, eminently sensible, forthright. We gloss over the possibility that such a person is also intolerant, boorish, opinionated, harsh in judgment of others. But to suffer fools gladly--to resist the impulse to show them how wrong they are, how uninformed, how feeble-minded--is to exercise good Buddhist principles of compassion, patience, tolerance and thoughtfulness of others.
Which is not to say that critical thought--and critical response--must be abandoned. I think back to my entry yesterday about Republicans, and ask myself if it was scathing, unjust, unkind. I hope not. It involved judgment, certainly, and negative judgment at that. But it was something I thought needed to be said, something that I thought was true. And I hope to have said it in a way that did not dismiss anyone as a fool, but rather expressed my own incomprehension of actions and opinions that seem to me mean-spirited and obtuse.
I myself was brought up to be unfailingly, perhaps annoyingly polite, well-mannered, considerate. It was not a choice, and I do not pride myself on it as a particular virtue of my own. Such things as standing back and allowing others to go ahead of me through doorways are knee-jerk reactions, engrained in me since earliest youth. I can't not do it. I often fault myself for excessive deference, politeness to a fault. I even condescend politely! When I find myself not suffering fools gladly, I do it with gritted teeth or pointed silence--no better, really, than doing it rudely, and out loud. Much better to be generous and genuinely kind. But harder, too, because the risk is being perceived as unprincipled or weak.
As always, there's a balance to be found. And, as so often, I find myself thinking of Obama--an exceptional man, in my opinion, and one who seems to believe steadfastly in that balance, and has the courage to pursue it. I admire the refinement of his manners.