Desiderata: The Fine Art of Self-Preservation

As far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

First of all, I’d like to say that I really love that he uses the grammatically correct term “persons” here. That’s something you just don’t see nowadays.

Now for the nitty-gritty.

The first time — the first ten times — I started writing this post, it went like this:

“I don’t like weak people. They are unstable and undependable. They detract from group cohesion. They don’t pull their own weight. They disappoint you constantly in myriad ways big and small.” And it pretty much went downhill from there. I never seemed to articulate the place of compassion and self-preservation that the opinion stemmed from. It just sounded like some Ayn Randian manifesto.

I’m not saying that you can never be weak, that if you show any weakness you should be ceremonially slaughtered in order to maintain the strength of the group.

When I say weak, a lot of people see themselves in that designation. I can pretty well assure you that that isn’t the case.

The Bad Eggs

When I say weak, I’m talking about when you watch a film and you can tell that a particular character is going to die (and probably risk the lives of his fellow characters in the meantime) because he’s some combination of cowardly, impulsive, treacherous, or self-serving.

Here’s Pvt William Hudson from Alien 2, pretty much the epitome of the type:

( is the link if the video doesn’t show up for you.)

30 seconds in and you already know he’s going to die, right? You don’t even have to know the plot.

So the people like that, those are the weak people I actively distance myself from. I’m sure you know or remember people like that as well. But you are probably not close to them, for obvious reasons. Movies usually give these people a chance to redeem themselves in the end (Boromir from Lord of the Rings, Hammond the big game hunter from Jurassic Park) but in real life there’s a whole hell of a lot of wreckage before that happens. (Actually, in LOTR, Smeagol is the quintessential bad egg, and its his weakness that winds up saving the day. It’s Tolkein’s argument for pity and compassion, but I think Boromir makes for a better redemption story.)

Chaotic Neutral

There’s a second type of person who’s not actively harmful, but chaos tends to follow them wherever they go. It’s not really their fault, but for some reason, things come up, planes get missed, dinner dates get forgotten.

This is the Everyman. Everyone sees themselves as that person, at least some of the time, but everyone also hates it when chaos spills over into their own plans. If we are not chaotic neutrals, it’s not because we’re so superior; it’s a case of there but for the grace of god go I.

So what do you do? Mitigate. You don’t cut them out of your life, because let’s face it, we all screw up sometimes, and we all would like that leeway on our own behalf.

And yet sometimes it’s hard not to be judgmental. You know the best way to keep yourself from being judgmental? Make sure it’s not a problem. I have a friend who is never on time for our coffee dates. Is it really an issue in the big scheme of things that I sit alone at a table in Tim Hortons for 20 minutes? Not if I’m prepared. And so, I’m prepared.

Dealing with a chaotic neutral is like the vortex Ethan mentioned. Time does not exist; you can’t control what happens, so loosen the fuck up and quit bitching about it.

That’s the wisdom in “as far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all persons”.

The weak people, well, they’re all right to have a beer with (just not too many beers; they tend to be loose cannons) but you probably wouldn’t be able to get them to help you move, you definitely wouldn’t have them watch your kid, and you sure as fuck wouldn’t want them to be your business partner.

You don’t have to cut them cold, but you want to keep them far enough away that you don’t suffer from splash damage. They’re not evil, usually. They’re just weak. But, weak’ll get you killed.

Chaotic Neutrals are far more complex characters, and we feel a basic kinship. Even if you’re a by-the-book sort of person, you’re probably aware that you’re only two or three setbacks or screwups from having chaos be a driving force in your life. Compassion and basic human decency prevents you from taking a hard line, because not only would you be lonely, you’d inevitably wind up a hypocrite as well. So instead, we take what steps we can to preserve order and ensure reliability, and we maintain the good relationship.

The key here is always self-preservation, or as Ehrmann terms it “without surrender”. The bad eggs have a really wide impact zone, and it’s just good sense to stay as far away from them as possible without being obvious about it. Chaotic Neutrals are less of an issue. Hell, kids usually count as chaotic neutrals. Chaos is uncomfortable, it irritates our sense of equilibrium, but there are usually no long term ill effects.

Because when it comes down to it, our assets are not our schedules or our outputs. They’re our relationships. We’re still, at our core, a band of apes that depend on each other for survival.

That’s why we are repulsed by the weak, but we take up the slack for the Chaotic Neutral. One is our enemy. The other is ourselves.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Check out this post.


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