March 31, 2001
I was struck some time ago by a quote from, I believe, the Dalai Lama. He said, in essence, "as you move up the spiritual path, at least have the kindness to remove the stones you trip over for the benefit of those behind you."
I though long and hard about this quote, and decided that as far as I was concerned, the biggest impact I could ever hope to make on this world would be to remove all of the assholes. At first, this seems daunting. However, it led me down an interesting path.
The first asshole I began to work on was the one nearest and dearest to me, myself. My theory is that assholery is a learned behavior. I don't subscribe to the theory that anyone is born an asshole. Here's how I think it works:
We all know the phrase, "He or she pushes my buttons." As long as we have buttons to push, we are doomed to the ignominy of assholic behavior. Assholery grows from a belief that we are entitled to act in a particular way, regardless of the circumstances or the people involved. For example: say I believe that I am entitled never to be pushed or shoved in any way. When somebody inadvertently pushes me - say, in a supermarket checkout line - I behave like an asshole. I feel fully justified in turning on the offending person and verbally tearing their tongue out and tying it around their throat. At this point, most people usually feel entitled to defend themselves in kind. The assholery mushrooms; it spreads like ringworm at a nudist colony.
The only way to be safe from assholic behavior, then, is to be free of buttons that can be pushed. I'm defining these buttons as" knee-jerk" responses, reactions which we feel we have no control over. My point is that we can have control over any of our reactions. It may take a long time, and quite a lot of effort, but they can all be tamed to some degree. I think of The Ideal Person as someone who could always choose her response to any situation, because she has no buttons to be pushed. We're as likely to achieve this as we are to find an odorless, cancer-free good cigar. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying. I figure that by constant attention to button deactivation I've cut down the amount of time I spend acting like an asshole by as much as 60%. And that's with no time spent in a gym, a monastery, or any other place of total self-immersion. Consequently, sixty percent of the time, I'm not causing others to behave in an assholoic manner. It's kind of a geometric progression.
Naturally the question arises: how do you handle other people who are behaving like assholes? Here's what I've found to work:
If it's someone like a store clerk, who I'm never going to run into again, the best I can do is to say, "You're behaving like an asshole, and I don't choose to deal with you." And leave. There are always other stores that sell whatever it is you are trying to buy.
"But," you may well ask, "Does this means that, because somebody else behaves like an asshole, I have to change my whole routine and put myself out by going to another store?"
In answer to that, I refer you to the Dalai Lama's quote, above. If you decide to stay and suffer though the asshole's behavior, he's going to continue to be an asshole to everyone behind you. In point of fact, the likelihood is that he's going to do that, no matter what you do. But if enough people inform him that he's behaving like an asshole, and that they're not going to deal with him because of this, there is a far greater likelihood that he will change his behavior. Or get fired.
When dealing with assholes at work, the matter becomes much more tricky. Whether they are above you or below you in rank, they're still a part of your food chain. One of the great regrets in my life is that I suffered so many assholes so gladly for so many years, all for the sake of a paycheck. And what did I get with this paycheck? Well, I did get food and shelter for my family and myself. But I also know I increased the world's supply of assholes exponentially by making these people feel justified in their behavior, and therefore free to inflict their assholery on everyone they met. This also increased my own assholic tendencies on a similar geometric scale, as I frequently turned into an asshole on my way home, ready to spread the contagion to my wife and children. The money I received could not possibly recompense for this.
However, there were many occasions during my work career when I feel I was successful at quelling the spread of assholery. Let me make one thing perfectly clear. Since assholery is a learned response, it can be unlearned. It's a disease, which can be cured. At least, in most people.
The first thing to do when confronted by an asshole at work is to avoid becoming an asshole in response. Most people are reasonably good at this. But instead of turning off the button responsible for their own assholic response, they merely swallow their gorge, only to spew it forth on some poor unsuspecting slob later in the day. What I was able to do, on occasion, was to look at what button had been pushed. In many cases, I found, someone had treated me as if I were an incompetent boob. Bolstering my own belief in my competence and confidence allowed me to disregard their opinion entirely. It further allowed me to spin around with a grin and confront them directly, in a non-threatening manner. I would say, "Y'know, I've been doing this for 25 years, and I'm really good at it. And the thing I want most right now is for you to get exactly the product that you want." Usually I could leave the rest of it unsaid. Which would have been "So if you'll just leave me alone to do my fucking job..." Obviously, this would have destroyed the effect completely. I found that most assholes, when confronted with a friendly grin from someone obviously assured of their own abilities, would naturally back down and begin to treat me in a much more pleasant manner. Most people in the grip of an assholic attack have no idea of the messages they are sending. If you can say those messages to them in a non-threatening manner, they will immediately see how unnecessary they are. To return to the original example, with the roles reversed: if I had bumped the person in front of me in the supermarket checkout line, and that person had spun on me in assoholic-Werewolf style and demanded, "Why don't you look where the fuck you're stepping", I would respond to their hidden message that I'd done this on purpose by apologizing.
"Wow," I'd say, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that." The whole assholic exchange would be nipped in the bud.
Of course, to respond that way, I would have to be pretty secure in myself. But then, that's the secret to getting rid of buttons. Most buttons at their base, contain messages stating either, "You are unlovable", or, "You are incapable". Any time spent proving to yourself that you are both lovable and capable begins to erase the power of these buttons.
Looking back on my life, one of the things that amazes me even more than David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear is the amount of time I've spent confirming, to myself, how unlovable and incapable I was. In high school, if you had asked me who I was, I would have told you that I was an outcast and therefore incapable of getting a date, or, in Rodney Dangerfield's word, of getting any "respect" at all. Much later, talking to people who knew me in high school, I was amazed to find the amount of respect which had been accorded me, and was even more amazed to discover the number of highly attractive women who would have gladly gone on a date with me. What a schmuck, huh? I had everything I wanted. I couldn't accept it, because I didn't fit in with my self-image. To take the matter one step further, if I had realized the respect I had, the charisma I projected, I would have acted as though I had it and quadrupled its power. People who act like they deserve respect (and who are willing to give that respect in return) are the ones who are most respected. You can see it in any office setting. Who are the most popular people where you work? Chances are, they are the people who most believe they are lovable and capable and treat the others around them as if this were true. Admittedly, this assumes that there are healthy people in your workplace. But I have yet to find a place wherein there wasn't at least one person bordering on mental health.
You'll notice that I've left the subject of dealing with assholes amongst your own family until last. It's often such a daunting and overwhelming task as to seem virtually impossible. I would submit for your consideration the following idea: most family assholery arises from roles so deeply engraved in each family member over so many years that none of the participants are even aware that these roles exist. Sometimes, family members are aware of their roles, but are so caught up with their concept of how the role should be played that they replace their personalities with their ideas - for example, the mother who can't stop mothering, even though her daughter is 43 and a skilled brain surgeon. There may be no way out of such situations other than to completely avoid each other or resort to the use of weaponry, which I can in no way condone.
Which leads us to Rule Number One.
The most important rule in dealing with assholes:
Whenever possible, avoid them like the plague.
Try it. You will be amazed how easily this technique comes to you. Soon you will see that most people in our culture carry huge DaGlo signs proclaiming ASSHOLE COMING when they are in that mode of behavior. All you have to do is choose to turn, and run.
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