I was asked recently how I could work with another termed “crusty old crab.” Acknowledging the person in discussion had a markedly tough crust I gave the response I hope guides me in such situations and said “on a thick crust I use more butter.” The other party got the idea and laughed “But how can you stand being barked at when all you want is an answer to a question?” It was then I recalled another faithful old guide and said. “I try not to let their bark get in the way of me getting my job done. It’s a question of not letting someone have control over how I need to act. Reacting to a crusty old grump stymies my ability to act positively. I’d rather be an actor than a reactor.”

I didn’t invent that tactic, one heard in a short tale years ago. It stuck with me and has proved sound in many instances. Use of tales as representors of values and the consequences of not honoring the social contract between people have a long history. Societies and cultures actively pass along what they see as important social values and individual responsibilities. Myth and parable often deal in values and the quest of an individual. Native cultures (these days called indigenous which to me sounds like a medical condition) make frequent use of stories in the form of hero and animal tales. An effective tale does a good job getting a message across, but not all messages have equal merit. A tale acclaiming the worth of obedience has a good chance of being rather more limiting of human potential than you’d take away from a fairy story about following your heart.

Brings me to a tale of my own. Not long ago I was chastised for saying that not all cultural norms are of equal value. It is, of course, appealing and appeasing to take a line saying “who are we to impose our values?” Indeed, but in so saying we’d be imposing empty value wouldn’t we? In any case, some cultural norms are more disruptive than others. As example, polygamy has consequences quite different from those of a nuclear family or where an institution or state takes on the parental role. These things are not the same. Arguing their equivalency is simply misguided. If abdication of a sense of values is your value then I say it’s not much of one. I had the pleasure once of balking an all-the-same arguer saying “Then I can swap your phone for this off brand as the same.” You know the answer to that. (I recommend trying it, though as much fun.) As people we follow questionable equivalencies all the time and we do so because the first person we need to persuade is the self; easy to sway and reluctant to question once set.

I ask myself, am I and those around me mostly actors or reactors? I like to think myself an actor, but one often forced into reacting to the reactions of others. Think way back. How often did you hear a reactor go on about Nancy Reagan? How often about G. W. Bush or Obama, and how often did any of that reacting do or contribute a single thing to understanding or betterment? The game confronting the individual may be how to survive as an actor in a bog of reaction? How can we manage it? As I see it recognizing the essential emptiness of reaction is a good point to keep. Maybe the strategy needs be active or focused reaction. The other day someone told (believing it was what I needed to hear) me that Trump was an embarrassment on the world stage. Perhaps so, but I feel inadequate as a gauge of world stages and offered the best support of their argument I could muster by asserting I valued Hillary for her consistent wearing of sensible shoes. I was gaped at like I was off on my marbles. You get that when you counter a vapid assertion with one of your own. It’s an equivalency immediately rejected because it does not fit the conclusion someone wanted you to agree with. Try it. It’s fun. Reactors don’t generally want discussion. They prefer agreement. When they get it in the form of empty agreement they’ll almost see the light before reacting with annoyance.

Reactors believe in things they want others to believe in as well. Actors try to hew their own timber and have reasons for doing so. Actors know so much is an act and so little is certainty. Someone gassing about the world stage should recall Neville Chamberlain who was widely and soundly acclaimed for fostering peace through conciliation later corrected under the term appeasement. Peace efforts served to embolden the Nazis in much the same way the nuclear deal with Iran serves to encourage North Korea. An actor might face the ugly dramatic mask that says peace might be ultimately dangerous to freedom. The tragic mask wears sorrow and horror on its face because it is hard to bear the knowledge that neither peace nor freedom is aided by making deals of small surrenders to nasty ideologies. Indeed, I might remind the advocate of peace that it was peace objectives and the disarmament of Germany after WW I that pushed Adolph out of the slot in the army where he was quite content. The outcome can be and often is far from what was intended as a result.

If a person desires to act more than react one of the better ways to so is by the advancement of knowledge. Facts and history are decent guides. Fascism (right wing) brought massive death and atrocities of WW II followed quickly by Stalinism then Pol Pot (left wing) and again more by Amin and in Rwanda as indigenous slaughters. Being left, right, or ethnic does not grant morality. Only a commitment to human, not political or sectarian, value might do so.