Periodic Confessional: Moving off the offensive
“You are a special kind of jerk,” she said. “Not only did you try to steal my parking spot, but when I tried to go ahead and give it to you, you went and parked somewhere else.”
“I wasn’t trying to steal your parking spot. I needed to move because nobody else in the parking lot could move if I didn’t.”
Now to me and anybody in earshot, “You try to do something nice for somebody! What a jerk!”
“Look, I wasn’t trying to steal your parking spot. I’m not a jerk, and it was just a misunderstanding. I think we should just put it behind us and move on with our days.” I looked to the Dunkin Donuts cashier who was watching this unfold, a bit slackjawed, while handing me my receipt. “Thanks. Have a good one.”
This was literally a new me. Not two weeks before, I had sat with my wife and our friends on New Year’s Eve and said I was going to move beyond being mean. I didn’t want anybody who didn’t deserve it to regret having run into me or (over)hearing something I said.
In this situation, the old me probably would’ve scanned my brain for a stinging insult. I would’ve wanted to find something that would find its way under her skin and nuzzle in for the rest of the day. If I came up short of such a zinger, I would’ve let my failure to “win” the confrontation bug me for the rest of the day.
“What the hell was that all about,” my wife asked when we got outside. We were just popping in for a donut and coffee before going our separate ways to work. Having arrived at DD first, she was unaware of anything having happened in the parking lot.
“I had to kind of pull in front of her to free up a jam in the parking lot. I knew whoever was in the truck would think I was trying to steal their spot, but I had to move. There was a car behind me turning left into the parking lot and they were hung out in the middle of the road.”
“Well you handled that a lot better than I would’ve. She didn’t even yell at me and I want to go back in there and call her a bitch.”
I couldn’t believe how good I felt. In the past, I had welcomed the chance to get upset. I would engage because I welcomed the anger, the chance at indignation. I would downplay the fact that I knew from the other person’s perspective it did look like I was being a jerk. I would retell the story at work and act like I was feeding off its energy when in all honesty, it would feed off me.
When I had made the decision to try to avoid saying offensive things or making offensive jokes, I was nervous about it. I crack jokes. Lots of jokes. In a social setting, it’s what I’m most comfortable bringing to the exchange and making people laugh is one of my favorite things. But in the course of a night, many jokes are at somebody’s expense. Maybe somebody at the bar I suspect is a douche, somebody on TV who made an easy target or somebody in a newspaper article who came off looking bad.
I never touched on the great taboos, but there are still plenty of ways to be very mean without too much fear of being called out. It was evident when I’d let a joke fly and see a hitch in somebody’s reaction. Maybe it hit on a problem they used to have. Maybe it made fun of something that affected somebody close to them. They usually wouldn’t say anything, but I’d catch their “look” and regret the ill-advised joke the rest of the night.
After this happened enough times, I just grew tired of trying to figure out what was OK to joke about and what wasn’t. Cheap laughs weren’t worth knowing you were responsible for “that look”. After having spent years trying to argue this joke or that joke wasn’t offensive, I realized when I defended jokes I wasn’t really making an argument about the joke. I was trying to convince myself I’m not the kind of person who’d laugh at offensive jokes. That’s an ugly light to shine on yourself and I wanted to get out from under it. Still, would I be able to fill the void where these types of jokes used to come out?
This was the surprising part. There was no void. It seems when I sincerely wanted to avoid saying hurtful things, the part of my brain that supplied them withered on the vine. Actually, I’m hoping it moved on to better pursuits. Every once in a while a joke will pop into my head and I try to make sure that’s where it stays. I’m sure some still slip through a filter that has blind spots. But for the most part, it’s not a flood of material I have to carefully sort through as I had originally feared.
Another surprise has been how much of a relief it is to come across everybody you meet and not size them up for potential material. It’s no longer “Look at this guy.” It’s just “there goes a guy”. What I feared would be limiting and restrictive has in fact been remarkably liberating. So in the end I have to agree with the woman at Dunkin Donuts. It takes a special kind of jerk to clutch so tightly, for the better part of thirty-eight years, to hurtful behavior that benefited noone and was likely most harmful to myself. Maybe I would’ve been more accurate to say, “I’m not the jerk you think I am.”
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