The Deafest Ears are Our Own


As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.

-The Proverbs

For those of us who do not live completely isolated from the rest of humanity–here we exclude only hermits, as even monks live in the company of others–we are granted every day the opportunity of hearing the feedback from instances of friction with other people. Friction perhaps comes with too negative a connotation. We use the word friction in human affairs as a synonym for conflict, but while all conflict is the result of friction, not all friction is conflict, at least not in the colloquial sense.

If we say, for example, “today, there was friction at the office,” we might be interpreted as saying “today, there was a conflict in the office.” Our listener might imagine that there was yelling or chastisement of some sort, or a heated disagreement that left two or more people not speaking to one another. Conflict, as it is easy to define in our minds, is quickly substituted for friction, and hence, we most likely are dissuaded from using the word friction except in those cases where we might be as at ease in using the word conflict.

I would like to recover the word friction for a broader and more nuanced use, one that is vital to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world, one that is at the root of our ability to grow mentally and spiritually. The more scientific understanding of friction is useful for our purposes here.

Friction: surface resistance to relative motion, as of a body sliding or rolling; the rubbing of the surface of one body against that of another.

While this is derived from classical mechanics, and might be in need of significant revision if we were to be operating in the realm of physics today, it nevertheless suffices for our purposes here in discussing friction as a metaphor for human affairs.

Each time we interact with another person–unless he suffers from a severe personality disorder that makes him entirely passive-adaptive and malleable to all external manipulation or influence–whatever we say or do will meet with some degree of surface resistance from the other person. By virtue of being unique individuals with private thoughts, particular perceptions, and a singular vision of the world around us, we act on different information–even if only slightly so–from each other person with whom we interact. We form our values and beliefs about the world based on this different information. Our desires, wants, dreams, aspirations are derived from these divers values and beliefs, and hence our goals and mechanisms deployed in pursuit of those goals will vary as greatly as we differ from one another.

Among the desires we perhaps all share in common, however, is the desire to succeed in achieving our goals. Given all the uniqueness contained under the penumbra of the individual, this apparently puts us at odds with one another in daily living. Indeed, if we examine the world from whole to part, we see that the divergence of the human individual from each other–first with geography and race, then with language, color, creed, clan, family, ability, etc., all the way down to the minutest of details of perception–is the source of everything from genocide and war to crime and punishment to marital divorce, parent-child estrangement, and business litigation.

We tend to view all of these differences as negatives, and the more idealistic among us will oft opine with vigorous wringing of hands “can’t we all just get along?”

No, we cannot. We should not even try.

Think of the times when we have tried–usually by force–to squelch the differences among us in order for everybody to live in harmony. Almost all law is predicated on this goal, and all totalitarian regimes, from fascist and socialist to Islamist pursue uniformity as their first objective.

It is not merely in the extreme pursuit of uniformity that we find problems. We find them equally in the more postmodern malaise of nihilist ethics where everybody is encouraged to go along in order to get along. Be blind to all differences, don’t judge, don’t think, don’t care.

The outcome, at best, is a lukewarm stew of uncooked ingredients, force-fed to us from beige bowls on those long school cafeteria tables.  If our culture taught that everything we think is legitimate merely because we thought it, and that every want and desire is worthy of pursuit because it happened to occur to us in some moment, we might produce a generation of entitled, spoiled, self-absorbed, emo narcissists. (Irony intended…)

But our differences, these sources of friction, are the primary cause of our (relatively) consistent progress as a species, and we can grow as individuals, as communities, as nations, as cultures only insofar as we are open to and indeed embrace friction and its consequences.

Here we must pause to acknowledge a paradox and the necessity to exercise our adult maturity to embrace two apparently contradictory ideas simultaneously without going crazy, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald. It would seem that this embrace of friction, this admission that we might be wrong, that our pursuits might be wrong-headed, or that our desires might be undesirable is at odds with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of Self Reliance, and indeed it would seem that such a suspicion would not be entirely without merit.

How are we to “keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” in our interactions with other people and at the same time maintain an openness to friction and its attendant challenges to our map of reality?

Certainly the ability to merely wrestle with this question is a mark of maturity, for it is a matter that should be a source of daily questioning in the lives of every adult. I could provide a belabored explanation to resolve the paradox, but its resolution is most properly expressed with far greater economy of words by a verse of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too.

Self Reliance is the trust–openness to and awareness of friction and its lessons is the allowance.

As we encounter other people and their unique perceptions of the world in daily life, we have the opportunity to examine ourselves and our own perceptions. We are often sent rather loud messages from these interactions, but we do not listen to them–we usually do not even hear them. Opportunity after opportunity to draw in new and improved information from the world is squandered because of our psychological deafness to the outer world. Hence, opportunity after opportunity to grow is squandered too.

The deafness is an evolutionary maladaptation of our survival instinct, that caused us to fend off encroachments on our territory. Tribal man could ill afford to say “I wonder if those arrows the other tribe are shooting at us should cause us to reconsider our present encampment–could it be that indeed we are in the wrong by being here?”

Certainly under such exigent circumstances even in our own day, we would not be wrong in fleeing or defending ourselves under immediate attack. But most of us do not find ourselves in these circumstances with much frequency. Our business and romantic partners are hardly inflicting mortal wounds upon us when suggesting subtly or merely by reaction implying that our habits might be improved or that some stubborn belief we hold about the world is causing our life and potential to stagnate.

I reiterate that all progress, all growth, individually and collectively stems from an admission that the previous way of doing something or thinking about something was wrong and that an improved way must be tried. Eventually that new way will be proved to be wrong and another improvement will be adopted. We have significant control over whether we come to these realizations frequently or scarcely, and much of that control is exercised in our daily interactions with other people–whether we bristle at every friction or pause in self-examination to reconsider our assumptions in those moments.

Let us both sharpen and be sharpened, and enjoy the joys of psychological growth, while enduring its pains with patience and good humor. There is nothing worse in life than for our only growth to be growing old.

– Skinner Layne