Twitter Fodder

Twitter Fodder    —by Jinny Batterson

I don’t have a Twitter account, nor am I ever likely to. I’m too wordy to accept that much that’s worth saying can fit into just 140 characters.  So I was somewhat surprised the other morning when I awoke after a good night’s sleep to find a Twitter-length snippet pushing its way into my journal: 

If you play only zero-sum games, you’re likely to wind up a big fat zero.

Fewer than 100 characters, even including a couple of adjectives that could, if need be, be left out. Few big words, except maybe “zero-sum,” a shorthand way of explaining the attitude that for me to win, you have to lose an equal amount from a fixed total, with no room for sharing or “win-win” solutions. “Big fat zero” may be slightly old-fashioned, but familiar as a taunt to anyone who’s ever spent time on an elementary school playground.

 What did it mean for me to have such a short saying barging into my thoughts, and maybe even my writing?  After a bit, a memory surfaced. I was back at our public high school, in my favorite teacher’s French class. Mrs. Nash didn’t so much teach French as she taught life. One of her favorite tools was a series of aphorisms, or short sayings, attributed to historical French writers. The discussion I remember best centered around a pithy quote by philosopher Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, who lived in France starting in the late 17th century. He wrote a lot about the conditions and rights of man. He is credited with having said:

Every man has his price.

As Mrs. Nash guided the conversation, we fairly quickly broadened our definition of “price” to include things other than a monetary sum or material item. Suppose the price involved our being embarrassed or made very uncomfortable? What about sacrificing our health? Suppose the price meant having a loved one put in danger? What if it demanded that we give up cherished ideas or principles? Suppose the price pitted short-term gain against long-term survival?

We never resolved the issue. Later discussions, in Mrs. Nash’s class and elsewhere, were based on a cross-section of similar sayings, not all of them by French authors:

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778) 

No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.
(Adam Smith, 1723-1790) 

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
(Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797)         

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.
(John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873) 

It gradually dawned on me that these “aphorisms” were the “tweets” of their times, considerably wiser than the 72 characters that had descended on me, or, I’m guessing, much else that gets posted on Twitter these days. 

As many of our online civic discussions continue to deteriorate into name-calling and evermore selective choice of facts, I’m sometimes tempted to despair. But I know that despair never changes anything for the better.  So I take frequent breaks to slow down and collect my thoughts, grateful to have this luxury at the current stage of my life. Not all do. However, all of us have time to take a deep breath. We can all briefly turn off or tune out the many distractions of our increasingly distracted society.  We all can imagine a place and time when we felt safe and cared for.  From deep within this setting of safety and love comes an important insight, one so short that it could fit ten times in a standard tweet:  

Pay attention.

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