Et al. presents: A balanced life


“Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.” ― Epicurus

In high school, I was part of a group of thirty-some classmates that made up what we called the Establishment for the Progression of Informed Citizens, or E.P.I.C. for short. It was a club my friend and I had established during our senior year, and there were only two requirements to join: the desire to learn something, and the willingness to be proven wrong.

Every week we convened in a room to discuss topics like abortion, foreign policy, gay marriage, the national debt, church and state, the drug war and immigration. We tried our best to leave our political affiliations at home, eschewing snarky quips and loud voices in favor of civil conversation. The club was an attempt to address what I saw as an inability for people of all ages to communicate any opinion without the conversation devolving into a fruitless and aggressive argument.

In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington gives us an idea of why this might be. It took him four years to complete the address to his satisfaction, and I think it’s fair to say that he considered every word in the final draft to be of utmost importance. In the address, Washington warns of the dangers of partisanship, describing the “alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities … a frightful despotism.”

This “spirit of party,” as he calls it, is unfortunately “inseparable from our nature.” But it requires “a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” Washington warns of a constant danger of excess; we may never live without partisanship, but we can control its effects by keeping extremism at arms length.

When we let ourselves fall victim to extremism, we weave ourselves a fiction. The easiest thing to do when you disagree with someone is to tell yourself a story. And the stories we tell are exciting. If I disagree with a liberal, it’s just because he’s a communist. If I disagree with a conservative, it’s just because he’s a religious radical. If I disagree with my president, it’s just because he hates our country. We fill our narrative with supervillains and cast ourselves as the hero(ine). We do this because reality is boring, and the truth is bland. In American Diplomacy, George F. Kennan makes some wonderful points on this issue:

“The truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the marketplace of ideas–complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. The counsels of impatience and hatred can always be supported by the crudest and cheapest symbols; for the counsels of moderation, the reasons are often intricate, rather than emotional, and difficult to explain.”

It’s the same reason why insightful independent movies get crowded out by explosions, lens flares and giant transforming robots. Our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter; we need simple, one-dimensional characters to interact with on the screen, and if we can emulate such a simple reality in our day-to-day lives, why wouldn’t we? News channels and politicians both know this about us. Too often, they eschew real, tangible content in favor of the sensational, or water down what’s important so we end up malnourished but nonetheless satisfied.

The truth is rarely the most compelling option, and the same goes for a stance of moderation. But more and more recently, I’ve been discovering the benefits of moderation. It allows me to find balance between the extremes, and sitting in the eye of the storm brings a lot to light. I direct your attention to the golden mean described by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics. Moral behavior, Aristotle argues, is the mean between two extremes–at one end is excess, at the other deficiency.

In terms of my argument, society is in danger of the excess of partisanship. But the answer is not to flee as far from it as possible. We must be wary of the other end of the spectrum: the deficiency of disinterest or apathy. So what is the golden mean? In this case, I believe it lies somewhere within the requirements of the E.P.I.C. club: secure convictions balanced with a desire for knowledge and a readiness to be proven wrong.

Being balanced doesn’t mean compromising what you believe. It only means balancing your extremes. It’s very popular to have a strong opinion, and more often than not to express it in very polarizing terms in Facebook statuses and snarky tweets. But there is a benefit in finding balance: it can lead to a richer and more engaged community that is united in its pursuit of truth.

Questions for further pondering:

1. Where do you think the line should be drawn between compromise and commitment?

2. Does compromise necessitate a surrender of values?

3. Are the extremes more compelling because their truth resounds in us? What proportion is there in extremes between truth and sensationalism?