The Drama Review (May 19, 2017)
Dear don’t-believe-your-lying-eyes drama participant,
When I was growing up, every boy I knew was fascinated with World War II. My friends and I spent countless hours playing army in the woods close to my house. We wore homemade uniforms, took turns being Allied or Axis soldiers, and made gunfire noises with our mouths.
For the record, I don’t do those things anymore for basically two reasons: 1) My friends will no longer participate and 2) I’ve been gently informed by family members that doing so would be really creepy and pathetic. So, I’ve stopped.
But we all loved the TV shows and movies set in the Second World War. In 1970, Patton was released which, of course, told the story of General George S. Patton and his role in the European theater of operations. Patton was a great general and it’s a good thing he was on our side.
But he was a drama person.
In one particular scene, he was trying to make a point and screamed at those in his headquarters. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks, looked stunned, and then proceeded with their responsibilities.
His adjutant, Col. Charles Codman, then said, “You know General, sometimes the men don’t know when you’re acting. “It’s not important for them to know,” explained Patton. “It’s only important for me to know.”
Patton was a controlling so-and-so and it was that very quality made him a successful general. But that very quality also led to his downfall. He couldn’t turn it off when it wasn’t called for. He needed to be controlling on the field of battle. He didn’t need to be controlling in his personal relationships.
We’re sometimes perplexed as to how a drama person can be so wonderful in some ways and so despicable in others. That’s how. He lacks the flexibility to use his good qualities where they’re called for and not use them where they aren’t. I’ll say more about that in a future letter.
Last week, we started discussing the second of five reason muscles—awareness. We’ll finish that up today. Again, reason muscles are what’s needed to do the right things with personal wrongness when those flaws become evident in close relationships. They enable us to be reason-able. Humility is the ability to acknowledge potential wrongness (i.e. I could be wrong). Awareness is the ability to acknowledge actual wrongness (i.e. I see where I’m wrong).
Having an atrophied awareness muscle, the drama person can neither be wrong nor see the flaws so readily obvious to others. He’s clueless. He’s oblivious. If and when problems occur in relationships, his stance is, “It can’t be me, it must be you.”
And as I’ve said, you’ll “get along” with a drama person just fine as long as you’re willing to do one thing: ignore his flaws. Relational “success” requires you to pretend what’s there isn’t there.
Dramas have two obligatory roles: 1) the drama person pretends 2) you participate in the pretense.
Normally-wired people make relationships work by solving the problems that come with closeness. Drama people lack what’s needed to solve relational problems so they resort to their only alternative—drama. Participating in the drama is how you “get along” with a drama person. If you don’t, you won’t.
Quick example: I was once in a supervisory position over a guy who was convinced he was God’s greatest gift to humanity. No one was better than him, smarter than him, more gifted than him, more influential than him. And those weren’t just internal musings—he actually said those things out loud. He “got along” only with those willing to prostrate themselves by stroking his grandiosity. But like the Wizard of Oz, those of us who worked closely with him saw the man behind the curtain to whom we were repeatedly instructed to pay no attention.
It was my undesirable obligation, as his supervisor, to call attention to his shortcomings for job-improvement purposes. Guess how that went over. I always dreaded those meetings and remember thinking, “I would rather have someone roll me up in a blanket and beat on me than have this conversation.” (I got that lovely expression from one of my office mates).
He couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see what everyone else saw and was, therefore, completely unreceptive to any negative feedback. He’d always try to put it back on me somehow. “You’re being overly critical.” “You feel insecure when you see me succeeding.” “I feel like I’m being micromanaged.” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
I would say that we didn’t really “get along” that well.
But let me come back to this pretending-what’s-there-isn’t-there thing. We’re all familiar with the phrase, “The emperor wears no clothes.” This is derived from Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837 short tale entitled, The Emperor’s New Clothes.” You know the story.
An emperor, who was obsessed with personal appearance, used every public gathering to show off his wardrobe. Two swindlers came along who convinced the emperor that they were master weavers, capable of making the world’s finest garments. Their materials, they explained to the emperor, were invisible to those who were either stupid or unfit for their posts. So, in addition to looking great, the emperor could use this feature to identify such individuals.
Biting the bait, the emperor advanced the swindlers huge sums of money and provided them with the finest silk. They simply pocketed the money, squirreled away the silk, and pretended to weave cloth with invisible materials. But no one would acknowledge an uncomfortable reality—they couldn’t see the materials. They wouldn’t admit it because doing so would imply unfitness for duty or stupidity. Imagine the emperor’s dismay when he discovered he couldn’t see the materials either.
Well, the big day came for emperor’s parade in which he’d show off his new clothes—which didn’t exist. Buck naked, he marched through the streets where everyone extoled the magnificence of his new clothes, realizing that if they didn’t do so, they’d be deemed stupid or unfit for their positions.
All was well until a small child exclaimed, “But he hasn’t got anything on.” The emperor couldn’t/wouldn’t acknowledge the now obvious reality and continued the procession with noblemen holding high the train of his non-existent costume.
There’ve been countless interpretations of this tale’s message but, in the context of our drama discussions, here’s mine: Some people will discount reality if a perceived advantage results.
That’s what happens in a drama. You’ll overlook a person’s flaws if calling attention to them results in adverse consequences. You must pretend what’s there isn’t there. Or, pretend what isn’t there is.
On a collective level, this is sometimes referred to as “suspension of disbelief.” What you’re seeing or hearing is not believable by rational methods of truth verification. But if it somehow serves a larger purpose to do so, you’ll willingly suspend your disbelief to accept that which is otherwise unacceptable. This phenomenon can be seen throughout human history.
Perhaps the most vivid example was in Nazi Germany. I’m about to exhibit something called “Godwin’s law” (no relation). Mike Godwin developed the axiom that the longer an internet discussion lasts, the greater the likelihood of a Hitler comparison. So, here goes.
In 1974, the 26-episode series, World at War, was released which began with a segment chronicling Hitler’s rise to power. It opened as follows:
“Germany, 1933. A huge, blind excitement filled the streets. The National Socialists had come to power in a land tortured by unemployment, embittered by loss of territory, demoralized by political weakness. Perhaps this would be the new beginning. Most people think the Nazis are a little absurd here, too obsessive there. But perhaps the time for thinking is over.”
Later in the episode, we hear this statement from Werner Pusch, a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.
“For the first few minutes, he wasn’t a good speaker; he was just warming up and finding the words. But then, he turned out to be a terribly good speaker. And the whole atmosphere grew more and more hysterical. He was interrupted after nearly every phrase by big applause and women began screaming. It was like a mass religious ceremony. And I listened to his speech and I feel the more and more excited atmosphere in the hall. For some seconds, again and again, I had a feeling of what a pity I can’t share that belief of all those thousands of people—that I am alone and contrary to all that. It was funny, I felt that he was talking all the nonsense that I know, the nonsense he always talked. But still, I feel that it must be wonderful to just jump into that bubbling pot and be a member of all those who are believers.”
En masse, otherwise normal German citizens were duped into drama participation. They overlooked what they saw in lieu of what they wanted to see. Individual critical evaluation had been replaced by a malignant groupthink.
“It’s easier to fool people,” quipped Mark Twain, “than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”
Next week, we’ll look at the third of our reason muscles—responsibility. The normally wired person’s stance is, “It bothers me when I’m wrong.” But the responsibility-deficient drama person’s stance is, “If I’m wrong, so what?”
See you then.