Aphorisms
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negotiation_curve.jpgNegotiators—whether politicians or homebuyers—begin with bold concessions which rapidly shrink the gulf between opposing sides. But like curves approaching an asymptote in geometry, as they near an agreement they level off and struggle to bridge the final, though trivial, gap. The effect of their ongoing quarreling is that, by the end, their motivating goal is not so much to strike a deal or make a sale as to make the other side yield, on no matter how minor a point. The fact of winning a concession matters more than the concession's substance. Not who yields most, but who yields last, appears to lose. The negotiation grows more bitter, the less remains at stake.

I doubt the phrase "The Great Recession," as applied to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, is destined for future history books. The word "recession," by reminding us of the weightier word "depression," undercuts the adjective "great." How can it have been great if it was not great enough to be a depression? It is only great in a lesser class, a superstar of the minor league.

The phrase's makers and repeaters commit the error of overestimating the magnitude of events they happen to live through. They judge from within, like farmers in tornados who, because the sky turns black and the wind blows the roof off their house, declare the apocalypse come, though at the moment of their prophecy most of the globe basks in sunlight.

When a parent says, "time to come in," the playing child protests, "must I?" Parents therefore declare children to be willful. But to children, parents must seem willful, for children grasp the rules but not the reasons. For adults, the reasons make the rules tolerable. We go to work because we know we must earn money. But children go kicking to school because going to school is the inscrutable dictate of their superiors. Adults live in an orderly cosmos of law and consequence, but children live in a Homeric world of fickle gods and arbitrary fate.

At concerts, moved by a beautiful song, we are drawn to the songmaker's soul, the wellspring of the song's beauty. If the glow she gives off in melody and words is so wonderful, how luminous it must be in the inner chamber of her being! Most likely, though, her soul's hearth is cold, for she has sung this song nightly to audiences for six months straight. Habit has deadened her to every feeling except loathing for another repetition. She was moved once, when she wrote the song, when she was the surprised and admiring audience of her own inspiration. But now she is only another instrument she herself plays, a flute deaf to its own sound.

Packing up my belongings when I move always causes me a small existential crisis. Suddenly, the walls are bare. Nail holes rather than photographs line the hallways. My feet, accustomed to the soft pile and bright pattern of an Oriental rug, touch a hard, cold floor. My empty bookshelves no longer cloak me in an aura of culture and history. My speakers are boxed up, and the quiet disquiets me. I have, in preparing to move, already moved into a house devoid of color, warmth, and resonance. Is this the same place I was living all along? Seeing my familiar home stripped and emaciated feels like seeing the skeletal figure of a friend on his death bed. The bare, unsignifying walls seem like a hidden truth I had papered over with my belongings. I worry, was the old life and color a lie? Is human meaning a poster on the white plaster wall of nature?

Cops and robbers would score the same on personality tests. Children who love guns and action, when they grow up, may act out their instincts on either side of the law. They may shoot people, or shoot people who shoot people. What we call brazenness in a criminal we call courage in a police officer.

Planning layoffs feels akin to planning a murder. Managers call secret meetings to identify which employees to eliminate. They observe the targeted workers' morning arrival times to plan the best hour to strike, forming teams of hit men to deliver the news.

Being privy to the plans places you in the morally questionable position of knowing your co-worker's fate but concealing it from him, like concealing from a friend that a car is about to hit him. You exchange pleasantries with him the day before his doom, discussing upcoming projects that you know do not concern him.

As the unlucky employees are called one by one to the boss's office, a contagion of rumors spreads through the building. Every heart thumps in fear of being called next, as medieval villagers trembled that the plague would jump from their neighbor's house to theirs, or as a panicked crowd scatters beneath the unpredictable aim of a rooftop sniper.

After the layoffs, survivor guilt blends with relief in those left behind. The names of the departed are taboo and spoken only in whispers. We say the fired employees were "let go," as if the company merely allowed rather than forced them to leave.

Soon, the daily collegiality of the workplace lulls everyone back into a sense of familial belonging, and we forget that we are instruments of profit whose continued employment depends on earning the company more money than we are paid.

The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines. -Proverbs 18:17

In politics, everyone has a reasonable point. And because everyone is right, everyone is wrong-headed.

We assert the need for spending cuts while condemning cuts to programs that affect us. Our convictions rest on sound arguments applied inconsistently. We do not so much only care about our favorite programs as only know about our favorite programs. Thus we apply a specific logic in defense of them—the good they do—while applying a general logic against unknown programs—the overall need to trim deficits.

In abortion debates, opposing sides do not so much disagree on an answer as compellingly answer different questions. Pro-life advocates depict a battle between a woman and a fetus, in which no human has a right to decide if another should live. Pro-choice advocates depict a battle between a woman and the government, in which no senator has a right over a woman's reproduction.

The rich protest the estate tax unfair because it taxes the same wealth twice. The poor protest it unfair that they have no estate to tax.

Nothing hinders a fair hearing for truth like cogent arguments. No sooner are we convinced of the merit of our logic than we close our minds to the merit of other logics. In college, I wondered how great thinkers, reading the same map of world facts, could reach such contradictory conclusions.

Skeptics are right to doubt the dogmas of the convinced, but for the wrong reason. Truth eludes us not because there are no certainties in life, but because there are too many.

When I plan my budget each January, I lose whatever excitement I once felt for money, for I see how little goes to pleasure and how much to mere administration. Mortgage payments, car repair, insurance premiums, taxes, prescriptions, utilities—for these we stain our souls with the sin of greed? The money I earn from continuously working does not accumulate into wealth but dissipates into bills. I am a conduit of the economy, funneling money from the company that pays me to the companies I pay. It is not so much pleasurable to have money as unpleasurable not to have it.

A regrettable paradox of human aspiration is that, because we desire and strive for excellence, we have no time to relish it. Broken things rather than working things demand our attention. Nothing is more pleasant in writing than an inspired sentence that drops full-formed onto the page, but such sentences, by their very effortlessness, only provide a moment's pleasure. A writer's hours are spent bending and hammering the tough, unmalleable sentences that will not take shape. A jeweler delights in a polished stone, but the instant he has chiseled it, he sets it aside and picks up another rough rock. Work is not accidentally unpleasant but essentially so, for we work on what we wish to change, that is, on what we do not like. A company calls long meetings not to discuss strategies that are succeeding but that are failing. Our love of solutions forces us to keep company with problems.

Watching Olympic swimmers paddling through the water with gangly legs and arms, heaving their heads up for air, unequipped with fins or gills, I question the pride of the champions. Goldfish in an aquarium move more gracefully. Is not a contest of humans swimming like a contest of fish running? If animals competed in the Olympics, few humans would win medals. An elephant or rhinoceros would hurl our strongest wrestlers from the mat like plastic dolls. Our fastest sprinters would lose the 50-meter dash to their cats. Schools of sardines would dominate synchronized swimming.

Feats of intellect should be accorded more honor than feats of athleticism. To be an Einstein is to comprehend more of physics than any other mind in the known universe. But to win a gold medal in the Olympics is merely to stand atop one's narrow class of competitors, human beings, who share the same evolutionary handicaps. The Olympics are really the Special Olympics.

The less sympathy I feel toward an opinion, the warier I am of dismissing it. If the opinion seemed as ridiculous to others as to me, no one would assent to it. Therefore, others must see something I do not. I risk a false victory in scorning it, like a man who easily triumphs over his opponents in dreams because they are only his brain's emaciated inventions. Instead, if I cast my imagination beyond the circumference of my experience, I invariably find the odious viewpoint's flattering angle. Understanding grants the right, and removes the desire, to condemn.