A few weeks ago, I was coasting in my van down 6th avenue in Denver, a dollar in my hand ready to hand out the window to whoever was standing with a cardboard sign at the corner of 6th and Colorado (there’s always someone there). As I got close, I saw the light was green, and I had to keep moving, and the person had turned their back anyway since traffic was now flying by at 25 mph.
I started to turn left onto Colorado, and the SUV next to me turned left as well, cutting me off. It’s not a double turn lane, and they were technically wrong. Immediately I thought, that’s not right, and honked my horn. Then I held the horn longer, just to drive home the message in case they hadn’t noticed.
I felt embarrassed immediately, that I had gone from wanting to help someone to basically whining in the span of about 10 seconds. Stop being an asshole, I said to myself. It wasn’t dangerous, I barely had to hit the brakes to avoid them, my day wasn’t ruined—the extra-long horn honk was just a way of saying “You’re doing it wrong.” Like a jerk would say it, though.
Do you ever catch yourself being an asshole? In the car, on the Internet, to a barista who misunderstood your order, to a person who disagrees with your political views?
I’m in the middle of what John “Slomo” Kitchin calls “trying to get to the end of my life without becoming an asshole.”
But it’s hard. We all have things we want to do, not enough time to do them, and the world moves way too slowly when we’re at work and not fast enough when we’re outside the office. Every once in a while, someone in a grocery store checkout aisle looks back and says, “Hey, you only have one item, why don’t you go in front of me,” but usually, everyone is just kind of in our way. We live in a country where we believe it’s always Us vs. Them, as if our political parties are two football teams and only one is going to win the Super Bowl of Quality of Life. We don’t see any way to work together; we just want our team to win.
In an article last December, Slate called 2014 “The Year of Outrage.” In the story, writer Choire Sicha explained one way we’re becoming more angry:
“We used to yell at the TV but it couldn’t hear us. Finally someone can. So you turn to all the people next to you, all the friends and followers, and you are typing and then you are hitting send, post, tweet, submit.”
I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that the Internet has given us the capability to be incredibly mean to each other, often anonymously. It is, and it seems there are people out there whose sole contribution to the universe is a mass of negative comments about everything, which they work at on a daily basis. We’ve somehow forgotten that world does not get better when we say something shitty about someone else, whether one person or a thousand agree with us. We argue with each other about things we know we’ll never budge on, in the end both only affirming our belief that the other person is still wrong and we’re still right, and our disbelief that they could be such an idiot.
Being nice to people is incredibly simple—Google “the Golden rule” if you need a refresher—but somehow, we’ve forgotten how to do it.
There are thousands of different paths to happiness, and thousands of books citing thousands of studies on how to be happy. An informal, unscientific, undocumented study of people I’ve met who appear to be pretty happy has shown that not being a jerk to other people is as good as any of them.
Here’s one very simple example of how to not be a jerk: You are drinking a coffee at a sidewalk cafe and someone walks down the street wearing pants that are way too tight (or way too loose, or too bright or too dark or too short or too long, or basically just different the pants you’re wearing). The way you were brought up, you would never wear those pants. Everyone in your social circle would agree that those pants are too tight. They go against everything you’ve ever been taught or learned about the world. They’re an abomination. How dare that person wear pants that tight.
You could say something to the person next to you, or take a photo and put it on Instagram with a mean comment, or silently shake your head in disgust as the person walks by, or find a social media outlet to communicate a sweeping generalization about people who wear tight pants.
Or you could take control of your own suffering, remind yourself that no one is making you stare at the pants, and really, in the end, that person’s tight pants make no difference in your life. Just keep enjoying your coffee and move on with your day.
Better yet, send your mother a text message and ask how she is doing. Or hold the door for the person behind you, or go ahead and let that person who drove all the way to the front before merging just go ahead, or say “thank you” more times in a day than you say “screw you,” or choose to look at photos of golden retrievers on Instagram instead of arguing with a Facebook friend who disagrees with you. Because being an asshole never made anybody happy.