Several years ago my wife whisked me away for my birthday to Anderson Valley, located near the coastal region of Mendocino County in Northern California. Our lodging was the Philo Pottery Inn, a charming little bed and breakfast that since closed down. Beyond the beautiful scenery, the primary purpose of our weekend was to attend a wonderful Alsace wine dinner at Scharffenberger Cellars.
We dressed up for the event and were seated at a large table full of friendly strangers. As the evening unfolded, appetizers and tasty dishes were paired with outstanding wine selections. Then, at some point in the dinner conversation, a woman inexplicably ventured into politics. She proclaimed her low opinion of the President of the United States. Others at the table nodded in agreement. Except for me.
Spoiling for a fight
I grew up in a household of readers. My father, an administrative law judge and learned man, often held court at dinner time. We’d discuss current events, news and politics. I couldn’t compete with my father’s expansive knowledge of history, but I enjoyed jousting with him on political issues.
I grew to enjoy lively debate, however, I learned that it’s generally bad form to make partisan political comments to a table full of strangers. It’s just presumptuous and a little arrogant to drop political bombs among polite company. So, when that woman was finished dissing the President, I challenged her,” I don’t think I could disagree with you more.”
Well. Things got interesting. Real fast. The woman was a Berkeley attorney. I was a cocky law enforcement professional with a graduate degree. Before the dessert and aged port arrived the woman and I were engaged in a heated debate.
The fool chatters while the wise man listens
My wife rolled her eyes and slid across the table to converse with a quiet woman who seemed unimpressed with the political banter. But the most fascinating chap at the table was an elegant Irish gentleman. He had white hair, was impeccably dressed and non plussed by the political salvos being hurled back and forth. The gentleman’s name was Guinness McFadden.
My wife, who has far more common sense than me, stayed completely out of the political morass. Apparently others tired of it as well and the table thinned. Mr. McFadden was queried at one point to offer an opinion. I recall that he raised an eyebrow and briefly shared a bit of his military background. Somehow he managed to deliver a salient yet non partisan point. And with that he fell silent again. Content to let us exhaust ourselves.
Later that night, back at the Philo Pottery Inn, I sensed my wife’s displeasure. “That woman should know better. You can’t drop political bombs and expect everyone to agree with you,” I reasoned. My wife countered with her observations of Guinness McFadden. About how dignified he was. Above the fray. Clearly capable of delivering trenchant, probably devastating insights that would have ended the debate. But he didn’t. Too much of a gentleman.
Mistakes of youth
I was younger then. It took less to tease an argument out of me. I didn’t understand that such debates were often of little consequence. People believe what they believe. Mr. McFadden obviously knew this. He had wisdom and much more life experience on his side. In fact, he’s quite a remarkable guy. He turned down an Ivy League scholarship to attend the University of Norte Dame. He earned a bronze star in Vietnam. In Potter Valley, where he makes wine, he is also a pioneer in the Mendocino organic movement (read more about him here.)
As the years marched on I often thought about our little weekend getaway to Mendocino County. Over time, I learned to stand down when someone tossed out a provocative remark or political statement. I took a page from Guinness McFadden, with my wife’s approval. I guess wisdom, like caviar, is an acquired taste. You need some experience and time to develop it.
Wolves and monkeys
People often say that man’s natural inclination is towards violence and war. I remember a quote by the historians Will and Ariel Durant: “No one ever wants to recognize the inexorable periodicity of war.” Perhaps they’re right. In many ways men can be like wolves. They like to pack together, go on the hunt and fight. They respect strength and usually pick a leader of the pack.
But men can also be like monkeys. They can form tight bonds, families and supportive networks. They can look out for one another and demonstrate great tenderness. A few years ago the Wall Street Journal carried an article that questioned whether man was innately violent. The article relied on some fascinating research with monkeys. You can read it here.
I’d like to think that man’s deeper instinct bends towards elegance, peacefulness and love. Maybe that’s why aged felons who get out of prison infrequently reoffend. They’re older and hopefully wiser. All the piss and vinegar of youth is spent and the mind turns to more important concerns. Thoughts about purpose. Legacy.
Choose elegance over winning
If you want to please your wife, impress fellow dinner guests and actually enjoy your dessert, here’s some advice for you. Namely, three reasons why elegance is better than winning.
1. You won’t look and sound like a jerk. You might have all the answers and even be right, but sometimes you lose even when you win an argument.
2. Winning rarely changes people’s minds. As noted above, people believe what they believe. Try convincing a Palestinian that Israel should exist. Or vice versa. Same thing with apologists and atheists. People become entrenched in their beliefs. Beating someone in a debate may feel good, but have you really influenced your opponent?
3. Elegance transcends biases. It didn’t really matter to me what side of the political fence Guinness McFadden was on. I was far more intrigued and impressed with his kind demeanor, distinguished flair and friendly disposition. Not to mention the fact that my wife was more smitten with how he behaved at dinner than me.
I have nothing against wolves, but they do help illustrate my point. The next time you are tempted to jump into the fray, snarl your fangs and nip at the heels of your political opponent, take pause. Picture those amazing gorillas we see in nature films, sitting placidly in a lush rain forrest, rocking their babies and grooming one another. Which better illustrates what we should strive for?
Guinness McFadden already figured this all out. Thanks to his example, my wife’s gentle reinforcement and the mellowing refinement of time, I’m starting to figure it out too. Elegance is better than winning.