Life update: I’ve moved to the wonderful land of Seattle, Washington to work at Amazon.com! Now on to the meat.
No matter how hard you try to be a good person, the sad reality is that you have probably done something dumb, mean, or inconsiderate at some point in your life. You may even have done it intentionally, and with malice aforethought. Maybe you were even consistently a jerk at some point in time. But the important thing is that you have (hopefully) gotten over it, apologized, and gotten on with your life.
Today, I want to talk about the process of recognizing your faults and trying to fix them. It’s easy to criticize other people for being douchebags, but when you are the one being a douchbag it’s often harder to accept. To start off this discussion, I’m going to tell you about George. This person’s name and the situation have been obfuscated slightly, because I still interact with George on a fairly regular basis, and having him realize that I was talking about him would be more than slightly awkward. Still, I think it’s worth having the discussion. And George, if you’re reading this and you realize I’m talking about you, know that I’m terribly sorry that I was a douchebag.
Even the nicest people have things that piss them off to an irrational degree. No matter how peace and love you are, someone out there will do something some day that will really stick in your craw, and make you want to punch them in their stupid little face. For me, this person was George. It wasn’t that George was stupid or mean. On the contrary, most people liked George a whole lot. But for some reason, George and I rubbed each other the wrong way and I was astonished with the level of irrational anger I felt toward him. I caught myself criticising him for things he did that – when I stepped back to think about it – I realized were perfectly correct, and were probably better than what I would have done in the same situation. Sure, maybe George was a little overconfident sometimes, but that surely isn’t any reason to hate someone.
This led to a period of about two weeks where I was in complete emotional turmoil. On one side, I recognized that George was in the right, and I was in the wrong. But on the other side, my inner cave man wanted to hit George over the head with the biggest club I could find, and feed him to a saber-tooth tiger. I was constantly fighting the urge to disagree with him on things he wasn’t wrong about, and I struggled constantly to resolve the dilemma: How can I dislike this person so much when they’re not a bad person? Why don’t I like them if it makes no sense? This was at a point in my life when I had recently figured out how to think deeply about other peoples’ perspectives, and on the whole, I considered myself a fair and non-judgmental human being, and the anger I felt toward George was in direct conflict with that belief. Most of the time, I just wanted the whole situation to go away. I wanted to never have met George, to never have said the things I said, to never have done the things I did, and to continue living my life as though none of this had ever happened. Needless to say, my experience with George really (as Jeff Bridges said in the movie Tron: Legacy), messed with my zen thing.
The truth is, there are things that simply piss us off. I subscribe to the idea that, to a large degree, we are a product of our experiences, and especially our experiences during childhood. Things that happen to us as children become woven into our personalities, and sometimes the events of our adult lives resemble a situation we experienced in the past so closely that they set us off for seemingly no reason. One of the most important such situations in my life is feeling patronized. A sure-fire way to get me to fight your idea tooth and claw – no matter how much sense it makes – is to put me in a situation where I feel like my authority is being overridden, or I feel like you’re treating me like a child. Logically, I understand that people who patronize me either aren’t communicating effectively, or are responding to something I’ve done that is foolish or immature. And I understand that the best response is to figure out which it is, and respond accordingly. Emotionally, however, being in that position pisses me off so much that it occasionally overrides my ability to respond rationally.
I have a friend who told me once that the teenage years are about hating yourself, and that it’s important to hate yourself during that time because it sort of irons out the kinks. At first, I didn’t understand how he could say it was good to hate yourself. But then I thought about it a bit more. We often use simple words to encapsulate larger, vastly more complex ideas that the listener is supposed to infer from context. In this case, it isn’t about hating yourself, it’s about recognizing you have flaws and trying to resolve them. But it rarely happens as calmly and deliberately as that. It’s often an emotional battle between the part of you that wants to be right, and the part of you that wants to be a better person. Feeling like you did something wrong is one thing, but feeling like you charged headlong into a bad decision on purpose is far worse. When you know that you were wrong, not because you didn’t have all the information or because you accidentally overlooked something, but because your core values and habits caused you to make a poor decision, it’s a lot harder to deal with. In that case it’s not just what you did that is wrong: a fundamental part of who you are is wrong. And that’s a hard thing to come to grips with.
Hating yourself doesn’t mean you think you’re worthless or that you’re a stupid, horrible person; hating yourself – so to speak – every so often, and for short periods of time, means that you recognize that you have been a douchebag, and you are trying to correct the root cause of that douchebaggery. You know that you’re awesome, but that awesomeness requires maintenance.
Balance and Conclusion
Obviously, there is a balance to be struck between “hating” yourself and recognizing your self-worth, and that balance is hard to find. Personally, I think I’m a bit hard on myself, and that prevents me from going as boldly forward as I’d like to sometimes. While I’m not sure I’ll ever feel completely at ease with George and what happened between us, I know that the struggle keeps me on my toes, and that those events were a huge learning experience for me in many ways. From now on, when I notice a similar trend happening, I’ll be able to look into myself and ask, “Is this person really being a jerk? Or do I need to re-evaluate the situation?” And that’s the point of hating yourself: learning from your mistakes.