Did you watch the recent political debate? Did you see yesterday's football game on television?
I didn't. And I'm better off for it.
Here is an argument for not aggravating yourself.
It starts with a story about lunch with my old colleague, Stanley.
I found that I dreaded lunch.
Not every day. I love lunch.
Just this day. As the date approached, I recognized that: I just don't like having lunch with Stanley. (Not his real name.)
Lunch With Stanley
Every year, sometimes twice a year, we would meet for lunch. It was an informal tradition, more of a habit.
The idea: let's catch up. We had worked together on occasional projects during the past two decades. And so it seemed that staying in touch with Stanley was a continuing good investment.
Stanley was smart, so I might learn something.
But I never did learn anything. Year after year. Except that, yet again, I didn't enjoy lunch with Stanley.
Lunches with Stanley weren't collaborative or collegial or affectionate. They were argumentative, status-driven, an attempt to prove one's own competence.
Q: Can a single moment be both aggravating and boring?
A: Lunch with Stanley.
The Secret Plan
So, on this particular day, on the way to lunch with Stanley — actually, all the way back to when we scheduled this lunch — I had a plan: this would be my last lunch with Stanley.
I probably wouldn't tell him. That would be rude. But I would go to lunch to confirm, once and for all, that I don't enjoy lunch with Stanley and that I wouldn't ever schedule another.
You might say that I packed a bad attitude in my lunch sack. I saw it as a necessary coda.
A Surprising Lunch With Stanley
About halfway through lunch, I was surprised to realize that I was enjoying lunch with Stanley. Lunch with Stanley had never been so candid, so deeply sharing, so truly interesting. Neither boring, nor aggravating. Quite the contrary. Life affirming. Nourishing.
This threatened my secret plan, but I refused to allow lunch to end without knowing: would this be our final lunch?
So I put it on the table: "Stanley, I have to admit something. I came to today's lunch thinking this would be our last lunch. I had come to recognize that I don't enjoy our lunches. They have always felt fake and competitive. I have always left disappointed and emotionally rattled. So I decided I would come today to determine, once and for all, that I'm frankly better off not having lunch with you."
Stanley stared at me. "Go on," he said calmly.
I continued. "I wasn't going to say anything today. I was just going to disappear and never reschedule. But something has happened. I am tremendously enjoying our conversation, in a way that I have never enjoyed before. And I don't get it. So I am bringing it up.
"Something big is different. The dynamic here is different. And I'm wondering why.
"I know that, during the past couple of years, I have changed. The relief of selling my business, the influence of Vistage, and my maturation into middle age — they have all made me more mindful, less needful. I just don't need to prove my competence to you. So there is some change on this side of the table.
"But something must be different on your side. This couldn't be all be me. So I have to ask: what in you is different?
"You are right," Stanley began. "You are right to see a change. I noticed something about myself about a year ago. I was always aggravated and aggitated. There was a seething anger within me.
"Of course, there is no good reason for this. I am among the luckiest men on earth. So well married, so well familied, so well challenged in my work. I should have felt continuous gratitude.
"And it came down to this. I was spending all my time keeping current on the political news. I was watching and studying every day's happenings. And I was absorbing all the bitter bad will expressed among the participants and pundits. It was corrosive and it was making me an angry man. You felt this during out lunches, I have no doubt. I certainly felt it at every meal and between them, too.
"So I wondered: why was I so committed to watching politics? I had come to think that it was a measure of competence, even a measure of patriotism, to know my position and how to defend it. And, objectively, I did know my positions and I was good at defending them. But the art of constant political advocacy left me bitter. I was always bitter.
"When I thought more deeply about it, I decided that — for me — it doesn't matter. If I am not facing a moment to vote, I don't need to watch each and every day's political news. I know which candidates, which issues, which platforms appeal to me. I can know all I need to know by reading not more than 30 minutes of news each week. I can still intelligently choose and contribute to campaigns without three hours of televised arguments every day. It wasn't good for me."
He was proving the monk's lesson correct.
"So I turned it off. And I've been happier ever since. Immediately. Truly. And ever since."
I think it is time to schedule lunch again with Stanley.
Did watching the debate change the way you are going to vote? Did you really need any information? Do debates matter? (If we are hiring a chief executive — and we are, make no mistake — do we really care so much if they win a season of Survivor? Or are we going about this in the wrong, most tribal way.) I read enough about the debate to know that all it did was this: people argued about which candidate is less like Dr. Strangelove.
How about that football game. Did you truly — deeply — enjoy the experience of watching that recent football game? Are you improving yourself by shouting as young men pound each other, risking (and sometimes suffering) grievous injury?
Is this time well spent? Are these experiences making you complete? Or are they dragging you backwards, back into your lizard brain, igniting your primative anger? Are you stronger afterwards, or somewhat depleted?
Wouldn't we all be better off by taking that time to walk in the woods? To play with a child? To read poetry? To draw a picture? To needlepoint? To drink a cup of tea?
To lunch with Stanley?
I've seen marriages on the brink of disaster. I've seen friendships torn asunder. I've seen people who cannot talk with the other side. (Diplomacy isn't talking with people who agree with you. Diplomacy is talking with those who disagree with you.)
I do care.
Don't call me apathetic. I care deeply.
As my friend Cindy Lazarus teaches, "It does matter who is elected on city council, in the local judicial races. It does matter. They make decisions that influence our lives and the health of our community. And those that rise, rise to statewide and national prominance. It does matter."
I do care.
But watching is not caring. My care is expressed in action. I register more than 100 voters each year (not just during election years).
Don't kid yourself: watching politics is not active engagement. After 30 minutes of reading each week, anything more is political porno.
Your time is your life. As the actor Bill Murray once said: "When we are adults we get to choose our diversions. We should choose them wisely."