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Life as Performance Art

    HL Mencken was an old school newspaper man who wrote for the Baltimore Herald – fedora, cigar, allegedly a bottle of something in the top drawer of his desk, and magnificently sarcastic and acerbic. Much to everyone’s surprise, he also played in a wind quartet which they thought was completely out of character.  Over the decades, a lot of newspaper writers have wanted to be like him, but none have ever developed his acute sense of writing.  Perhaps the closest one to him was the late Andy Rooney.
    There were many times when Mencken was close to having his ears boxed, his nose turned to twelve, or otherwise roughed up.  It never happened. Perhaps the reason was simple.  When someone was critical and tearing a strip off of him, he’d let them blow off the steam and then smile and quietly  say, “You might be right.”  With that, he turned away and left the complainant sputtering.
    They sputtered because they were probably hoping to either get Mencken to think the right way: In other words, think like they do.  Or, maybe they were spoiling for a fight that they suddenly realized  were not going to get.
    “You might be right” seems to be a potential tonic to cool some of the tempers in our country.  It’s hard to get into an argument with someone when that is our first response. It’s even harder when that is the person’s final response.
    “You might be right” is an all-purpose answer. Try it out sometime.  The hardest part is to remember to change our usual pattern of behavior, and say those four words.  Here’s what I mean:  If a family member is not happy about the way the dishes are done (or not) instead of becoming defensive or argumentative, saying You Might Be Right deflates the heat of the moment.  It opens up the lines of communication and paves the way for a positive result.
     It takes a big person to say those four words.
    A decade or two ago when I was an adjunct history professor, on the first class session after Thanksgiving I asked about everyone’s holiday. There were a few answers about a big feast or no feast at all, shopping on Friday, and so on.  Then one woman said with great excitement, “It was wonderful!  No one pulled a knife, and this year the police weren’t called.”    At first, I thought she was joking, but she was serious.  A student asked why this year was different, and the woman explained that when her brother tried to pick a fight she just calmed him down by saying, “you might be right.”
   At least one student was listening in class.
   It works especially well with the proverbial hot-button issues such as religion, politics, and a vast array of cultural issues.  The reason it works is because the speaker doesn’t say, “You are right and I am wrong,” nor “You are a blithering idiot for even thinking that way.”  It is the pause button that opens the way to a conversation and not a shouting match.  That might come in handy during holiday festivities,
    You and I know our country is badly divided. We might think it is something new to our own era, but it is as old as America itself.  The only real difference between the past and present is our electronic news services and social media.  So help me, if a politician scratches his or her backside, the detractors will have a fit; the supporters will say the politician is just being human. By evening, lines will be drawn, and it will be Handbags at High Noon between two or more factions on the Talking Head News Channels.  
     The intellectual might quote the immanently practical stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelias who said, “if your nose itches, scratch it,” and leave it at that.  That’s no fun, is it. We would far disrupt billions upon billions of electrons on social media over nothing. It is a smoke screen to keep us far away from thinking about something more important.
     “You might be right” is a bit like the method used by the people of the fictional hamlet of Popperville. They all agreed they needed a new city hall, and Mike Mulligan put in a bid on the job. While Mike and Mary Ann were so busy digging the basement he forgot to build a ramp so his old fashioned steam shovel could get back out, it looked like he had failed. Then, a child suggested ‘why not give her the new job of being the building’s boiler?’  The people thought about it and asked, “Why not?” 
     A bad situation, a serious challenge was converted into a good result, simply because people moved from instantly arguing into thinking how something different might work.
    And that, I am convinced is the best way for us to move ahead. It doesn’t matter if it is a couple debating how to get some household chores done to a church, any organization,  a city, or the country as a whole.  Imagine what might happen if a politician publicly told his or her opponent, “You might be right,”  and it leads to a compromise.
    At the election in November a small Michigan town had a library bond renewal vote, and it got national attention.  Trust me, that is a major accomplishment to get national attention especially over funding a small local library.  It was probably not the publicity they wanted because it revolved around a group of people who were unhappy about some of the books they didn’t like. Those bad and naughty books, they believed,  supported a cultural issue that was contrary to what they thought was right. The two groups spent most of their time talking over each other.  In no time, the voters were polarized, with the end result was that the bond renewal failed and the library may close.  And the town is still divided with hard-feelings all around.
      Imagine how this could have ended differently if someone had the courage to quietly say, “You might be right,” and then suggest they all see if they could come up with a solution.  Someone might have proposed, “Why not…?”  and saved them all a lot of grief.
     With the holidays fast approaching, this might be the best time of the year to start practicing that “You might be right”  response.

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