Can I Stop Being an Asshole?

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Last week I explained that everyone – including you! – is an asshole, at least some of the time. Now I’m going to try to explain to you how to stop. Or rather, I’m going to let a writer better than I do it for me.

In 2005, writer David Foster Wallace delivered a commencement address to graduates of Kenyon College. It’s an address that I’ve referred back to time and again in my life, as its emphasis on empathy is one worth emulating. In it, he says,

Most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. (emphasis mine)

Essentially, what Wallace proposes is that our “default setting” is to be an asshole. And the only way to rewire ourselves away from that is to be intentional about it, to remember that each and every person has a story and a motivation behind their actions. We may never know what that motivation is, but we should still have grace in that moment.

When I was a sophomore in college, my parents gave me a car for Christmas. It was a white 1991 Honda Accord they’d bought of a friend of the family for $300. It was also a stick shift transmission. At the time, I didn’t know how to drive stick. It took me a month to learn. It was a tough month – I managed to stall the engine trying to make a left turn in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in town. I rolled back down hills a couple of times before I figured out the exact sequence between pulling my foot off the clutch and brake and hitting the gas quickly.

Needless to say, I spent a month getting honked at, flipped off, and screamed at by complete strangers. But it’s not like I could make myself learn to drive that car any faster!

A short time after this learning period, I was sitting in the car with my dad at an intersection. The light turned green and the car in front of us didn’t move. My dad expressed frustration and started honking.

“DAD!” I burst out. “Give them a minute! For all you know, it’s a new driver!”

Suddenly: empathy. Where I would have been inclined to get annoyed and start thinking the worst of the person in front of us, I understood that the driver in front of me could be dealing with his own issues and there was no need to start name-calling. Because I’d been in that person’s shoes, I was able to look at them with empathy.

Of course, this is a lifelong lesson. I’ve since lost a lot of that initial empathy toward other drivers, especially since moving to Chicago. I’ve become much more of an asshole – I’ve sworn at other cars more than once. It’s so easy to forget, so easy to slid back into that asshole-mode.

So what I have to do, and what you have to do is remember, on a daily basis, that everyone else has a story, everyone else deserves dignity and respect, and that everyone else might just be going through tougher things than you are.

Easier said than done, of course.