Flexible vs Malleable

The Orwellian decay of our language is a common subject in the orthosphere.  Ambiguous and equivocating definitions make it near impossible to engage people in meaningful ways; every word becomes a lie of omission.  Usually, this is viewed as a pretty sinister thing, a la the IngSoc motto from 1984:




But it can also take more mundane forms in everyday life.  The inability to think clearly, or perhaps more accurately, the failure to notice unclear thinking, can lead us astray as well.

Flexibility is a virtue extolled by our culture.  “Roll with the punches.”  “Adapt and overcome.”  Do what it takes to succeed.  “Lean in.”  Pick your phrase.

In the name of flexibility, you change your routine.  You change your gym time from the morning to the afternoon, or cut it from 5 days a week to 3.  You cook fewer meals from scratch because you need to make time for “the big project.”  You see friends less because you are working later.  You go out less because your job takes you away from your cultural heritage; perhaps even from any significant culture at all.  You spend money to outsource everything from lawn care to child care.  You give up a reading habit, or a music-playing habit because all of the above leaves you too tired for intellectual leisure.

Years later, you’re weak and overweight from lack of exercise.  You are unhealthy because you ate fast food for nearly every meal…at least the ones you didn’t skip outright for lack of time.  Your relationships suffer, as does your cultural identity.  Your home isn’t so much your own, and someone else has raised your children.  You never did read that one book that caught your attention, nor the several others it would have led you to.  You aren’t any better at music than you were at the end of your high school band career.

Is this “flexibility?”

No.  A flexible thing yields under pressure, and then resumes its original shape.  Such an object might be thought of as being resilient.

There is another word that describes the above scenario; an object that yields under pressure and then remains deformed after the pressure is gone; we say such an object is malleable.

Too often people believe they are being flexible when in fact they are being malleable.  They have no concept of their normal state, and don’t seem to notice as they stray farther and farther from their baseline.

Clearly there are limits.  Any flexible item, if flexed too far, either bends permanently, like a paper clip, or snaps, like a toothpick.  Those points must be avoided if at all possible, and recovered from once experienced.

I bring this up for a two reasons.

1) Today I was talking about my thoughts on our culture’s disregard for social entropy, and the discussion centered around the huge amount of work required simply to maintain our civilization’s status quo.  While this discussion was at the societal level, I was also thinking about the individual in the back of my mind as well.  Individuals flex to accommodate circumstance, but I believe the rampant levels of diseases caused by sedentary lifestyles as well as mental health problems indicate that far too many people allow themselves to be permanently molded into routines which fail to address their basic physical and mental needs.

This plays out differently in everyone’s life.  For me, the mental alarm bells start to go off when I miss the gym two days in a row.  Not only am I physically thrown off by excess energy (and, likely, insomnia), but also in the back of my mind I wonder what’s going on that I missed such an important part of my daily routine.  I figure out what’s sapping my time and energy, figure out how long it will take to complete the project, silence the mental alarms giving myself peace of mind, and set plan to resume my routine on a schedule.  I’m planning to flex, rather than letting myself bend.

2) The military’s big catchword for dealing with mental health problems these days is one I’ve already brought up: resiliency.  They stress that people have setbacks, but the key to recovery is, well, to recover!  To “bounce back.”  And while this is a great idea in and of itself, in a broader context it is lacking.  In our increasingly atomized culture, people often have little to bounce back to.  Some literally have no idea what a healthy lifestyle is to begin with.  Among those who do know what they need to be healthy, many face demanding situations with no end in sight; their adaptive habits cease being a temporary “flex” and become permanent “bends.”

The rule I make with myself when I find my routine breaking down and I think about procrastinating is to ask myself, “If not now, when?”  Plan the return to normalcy before you deviate from normal.  Plan your self-maintenance before you need it.  I suspect a lot of life’s big problems would be solved if we prevented their little versions from accumulating without a second thought.


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