Sunday, March 14, 2010

Everybody's a Jerk, Sometimes

I was visiting with Larry about two weeks ago. Larry had been talking about his experience serving on the board of a synagogue. I repeated my standard bon mot - that the quickest way to get a newcomer to leave a church is to put that person on the church board. Larry was a bit surprised by that comment, and asked why.

I replied that, in the Christian tradition, many naively believe people will always live up to the ideals we profess. That even a political structure like a church board will reflect the best of our ideals rather than the worst human traits. Disagreements will remain civil. There would be no infighting, no back room deals.

Now this is a challenge many find with Christianity. This is why people perceive that Christianity is filled with hypocrites: people do not live up to the ideals they profess. People barely live up to those ideals for the hour or so they spend in church, and generally don't live up to them in the work week. As if this failure were not enough, these people judge others based on the very ideals they fail to uphold. These hypocrites can, for example, condemn same-sex relationships at the same time they are lusting after someone else's spouse (see Mt 5:27 ff).

There is a popular shorthand term for this type of person: a jerk.

Once I realized this was a proper term for this sort of person, I had a surprisingly liberating thought: jerks aren't limited to Christianity. I've seen interviews with the Dalai Lama in which he seemed testier, at times, than one would think a "spiritual" person should be. Asymmetric tactics such as suicide bombs and airplanes used as missiles are just extreme examples of being a jerk. I have no doubt there were times Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were jerks.

Everybody is a jerk, sometimes. There are times we intend to be a jerk. There are other times when we only recognize that we behaved like a jerk in retrospect. There are, of course, times when others think we have behaved like a jerk and we're completely clueless. These are no more than a few standard variations of the human condition.

Everybody has a bad day. There is, inevitably, going to be a day we get up on the wrong side of the bed. When we feel puckish, and say "Stop" when everybody else says "Go". Those who are jerks 24/7 are pretty much in the minority, when you think about it. But everybody has a moment when s/he behaves like a jerk.

Ideally, if I recognize that I've been a jerk, I do my best to make amends. I make a mental note, and strive to avoid repeating the error.

If I think someone else has behaved like a jerk, I strive to let it slide. As a general rule, it's not my place to correct them or to point out what a jerk they're being. I don't know their story. I don't know if their behavior is intentional. In this situation, I have a choice: I can nurse a resentment, or I can let it pass. The former is the healthy choice.

So: some Christians are hypocrites. Who cares? They're a bunch of jerks.

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