Archive for November 23rd, 2011


trouble in paradise

When I moved to West Texas ten years ago, I set two rules for myself. The first was to get along with everybody, even people I don’t like. The second rule was to stay out of other people’s fights.

The first place I landed was the small town of Marathon, a place populated by 450 souls. This was the first time I had ever lived in such a small community, and I quickly discovered how challenging it would be to stick to my two rules.

The first rule was easy because I have this mental trick that allows me to get along with just about anybody: I find one thing in every individual I meet that I can admire, and I focus on that one thing and let my admiration of that one facet color the whole relationship. People almost always reciprocate acceptance, but upgrade acceptance to genuine admiration, and you’ve got a magic potion. Try it some time, and you will find you can get along with even the most sorry excuse for a human being (especially if your contact with that person is limited).

The second rule was a tougher deal to pull off. Aside from television, gossip is the number-one form of entertainment in small towns. Even if people know nothing about you or your business, they’ll make stuff up—some of it just to cause excitement and trouble. The friction between clans, cliques, and coalitions is as intense as anything you’ll see in a middle school, and it seems people are always trying to get you to align with their particular camp against another.

“The friend of my enemy is my enemy” is, unfortunately, a cogent belief in small places and it takes uncommon social versatility and relentless effort to maintain civil relationships and friendships among opposing factions.

When I moved to Estrella Vista, it was a relief to leave behind the social hothouse of the small town. I have always maintained that one should categorically have nothing to do with 85% of the general population, and that one should select real friends from only a third of the remaining 15% based on coherent values. My reasoning is this: if you were to select on the basis of a single value—let’s say honesty—a third will always be honest, a third will always be dishonest, and a third will be honest or dishonest as the situation suits them. I use five core values in selecting friends I could trust with my life—so to what proportion does that reduce my pool of potential real friends? One to three percent of the general population?

This can make for a pretty lonely existence, especially in a sparsely-populated place like this. There are only 9,331 people in the whole county—if a third of them live within 50 miles, that would result in less than 95 potential friends at most, and 20 more likely. And half of those are recluses I’m unlikely to ever meet.

So I resort to a simple-minded heuristic: I accept everyone at face value, warts and all, until they do something to deceive, hurt, or betray me. I don’t judge anyone until I learn through my own experience that someone’s a bad bet. I still try to get along with everyone, and I still try to stay out of other people’s fights.

It’s worked out pretty well until now. Unfortunately there’s been an ugly feud going on between neighbors about ten miles from here. The other day one of the neighbors presented me with an ultimatum that I must choose sides or become an enemy to one of the warring camps.

I’m not going to declare my allegiance to either side. It’s their fight, not mine.

I’ve had no hand in any of the plotting and planning. No one has asked my advice. The way the trouble is escalating, I would not be surprised if someone eventually gets hurt. I want no part of it. I have urged both sides to turn down the heat and reconcile, but no one is listening.

I’ll continue treating people on both sides of the conflict with civility, courtesy, and compassion, even if it means losing the friendship of all.

One way or another, this trouble in paradise will pass. The best course for me is that I stick to my principles and keep my conscience intact.


Groove of the Day 

Listen to Lynn Kellogg performing “Easy to Be Hard”