Never Let Them See You Sweat
By KATE ZERNIKE
The economy jolts and stumbles, wars slog on in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the horrors of a new terrorist attack blanket the news and draw frayed attention yet again to our precarious alliances in the world. The watchword for the holidays is subdued; certainly not much inspires celebration.
Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that to lead us in crisis, Americans elected a man repeatedly recognized for his uncommon calmness. More than ever, we crave stability, a steady hand, the reassuring face on television.
We even elevate such equilibrium to the superhuman: calm, as applied to No Drama Obama, often comes linked to the modifier “preternatural.”
But the calm temperament is not so superhuman, nor is it entirely the gift of the chosen few. It can be cultivated, even as the world cleaves around us.
So how do we get there without a steady diet of beta blockers and Xanax? Calm, per se, doesn’t appear in the taxonomy of those who study personality and temperament. People we might colloquially describe as calm are classified as low on the scale of neuroticism — a scale everyone is measured on, to a greater or lesser degree.
"Cool" is back in style? When did it go away? James Dean was cool. The Rat Pack was cool. Cool Hand Luke was, well, cool. Even Governor Dukakis himself was cool when he ran for President in 1988. So cool, in fact, that when asked during a nationally televised debate how he would deal with a man who raped and killed his wife, the Duke promised to apprehend the malefactor and recite to him statistics on rehabilitation, recidivism, and the inefficacy of capital punishment until the desperate prisoner begged for extradition to a capital punishment state. Or at least, I remember it that way. No, the Duke did not lack for cool. He was not cool enough to defeat Bush 41 or protect me from the Russkies, but he was cool. "Technocratic" was the preferred adjective back then, as I recall. Some even went with "robotic". But he would have been "cool" if he had won.
Segue. Obama is cool and you can be to, and more importantly, ought to want to be. On another day I would moan "If the Times is going to continue this sort of fawning coverage just kill me now" but that would sort of run counter to their theme, so I'll be chill. Now, a question for the house - does anyone recall whether back in 2000 the Times ran laudatory articles about Bush's resolution, doggedness and perseverance? Those are useful virtues too, when the time is right - Bush has created a bit of a bear market in those attributes, but contrarians may see a buying opportunity.
This bit from the article fascinates me and confirms a bit of folk wisdom I acquired decades ago:
But many researchers argue for two ways to think about calmness: you are calm, or you learn how to be.
Imagine two people with equally high measures of neuroticism dealing with the same irascible boss. One gets yelled at and leaves the boss’s office perfectly composed; the other gets yelled at and flees to the bathroom in tears or storms out and kicks the wall.
The difference is that the first person has learned to regulate the neuroticism.
People tend to think that the confrontation produces the reaction; if you’re faced with an irrational rant, who can blame you for falling apart? But researchers in emotional regulation tease out a factor in between: how we think. Between the “a” of the antecedent and the “c” of the consequence, they argue, is the crucial “b,” for belief, which in the case of the person melting down might sound something like: my boss hates me, everyone hates me, I’m a total failure.
That is the opportunity for emotional regulation.
Someone who had taken inspiration from Woody Allen's quip that 90% of life is just showing up opined that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you feel about what happens to you, although when pressed he admitted that the ratios may be subject to adjustment during, for example, a major earthquake. Or when reading Times coverage of Obama.