Where’s an Ancient Greek When You Need One?

Exploring the construct of shaking things up in a paper bag to reach the golden mean.


As I step into my direct report’s office, he steps back, increasing the distance between us to just under the raise-your-voice-to-be-heard distance. I stop stepping. Transacting my business from here is slightly awkward — I have a graphical document to discuss with him and want to be able to point out some areas that need refining — but I persevere. I know from experience that it would be futile to move any closer: he will just edge away.

Leaving his office, I am almost pounced on by another direct report who wants to show me something and get my input. At least, I guess that’s what he wants. Tucked practically under my left wing, he is so far inside my personal space that half of my attention is on forcibly suppressing my urge to distance myself. I know from experience that it would be futile to move away: he will just pursue me.

Retreating to the sanctuary of my own office, I think ruefully — and not for the first time — that if only I could put these two entirely capable employees in a paper bag and shake them up, I might get two entirely capable employees who were both in the normal range when it comes to personal space.

Fast forward 15 years. As I step into the shower, the blast of water almost spins me around. I grope for the showerhead, but there is no help to be had there — no lever to adjust the flow of water. It just comes the way it comes, in this, my first-ever exfoliating shower. As I brace myself to rinse my hair without being knocked over, I think back to the previous hotel, whose shower had such pitiful water pressure that it was almost a challenge to get wet. As I step out of the shower and check for abrasions, I reflect ruefully that if only I could put these two showers in a paper bag and shake them up, I might get two showers with normal water pressure.

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle: they didn’t know the paper bag trick, but they got the notion of ‘Nothing in excess’ all right. They might even have been the first to articulate the philosophy of the ‘golden mean’, but it was undoubtedly understood intuitively by people long before that. Think of chiefs trying to feed their tribes, saddled with go-for-broke trackers who reliably spooked the quarry by rushing heedlessly forward, and slow-and-steady meticulous types who never caught up with the game. Heck, think of endless generations of mothers with one kid who wouldn’t shut up, and another who wouldn’t speak up.

We don’t hear much about the golden mean these days, but it lives on in the ‘moderation in all things’ admonishment for our private lives. We are encouraged to find a middle path in our activities: something between couch-potato-dom and obsessive exercising; something between starving ourselves and eating everything in sight; something between teetotalling and drinking ourselves blotto.

Yet the leaders of our civic lives seem to have lost this notion of the golden mean as a virtue, if ever they had it. On any issue, each has a position that is entirely right; those who oppose are entirely in the wrong. And worse than merely wrong about tactics: they are wrong in their essence, wrong in their intent, wrong in their value system. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Well, not in some contexts, that’s for sure. Tit-for-tat retaliation, for example, spirals out of control and does nothing to redress the original offence.  But one wrong doesn’t necessarily make a right either.  In public policy, where two extreme positions could moderate each other, they might, indeed, make a right. Mightn’t they?

I know, I know — that isn’t how politics works: imagine having to acknowledge that there was some value in what those bums across the aisle were proposing. Fiscal cliffs, foreign investments, trade regimes, health inspection regulations, healthcare planning, immigration management: on both sides of the border the list is lengthy, if not exactly endless; the positions are firm, if not entirely reasonable.  I guess that leaves it up to us to pursue the golden mean even, or especially, when politicians seem unable to.  Maybe you’d like to borrow my virtual paper bag. Shake, shake.

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4 Responses to Where’s an Ancient Greek When You Need One?

  1. Jim taylor says:

    Oh, amen!


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – I guess that means you’d like to sign up for a paper bag? I’m actually considering starting a campaign to send paper bags to members of Parliament… but I’m not sure they’d take the hint!

  2. So many things are like this Isabel. You nailed it. We just isolate and get more dug in and push our sides harder. There is a principle in systems dynamics theory that says large actions create big resistance. Small actions create small ripple effects that actually create more change. We are so into big strong positions that push really hard. This only escalates the problem. Thanks for a wonderful perspective on a very pervasive problem.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Esther – Thanks for the kind words. I sure hope that seeing the value of moderation and incrementalism is really how the world works, rather than just my rapidly approaching seniority showing!

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