The topic of conversation at dinner last night evolved around the question of whether Americans are becoming more self-righteous* and, therefore, more aggressive and very much less polite. Implicit in this conversation is the notion of the other because, after all, one is highly unlikely to define one’s self this way…even if others might see in us that which we can’t see in ourselves. Indeed, feeling self-righteous might be the greatest impetus to find fault with others.
On reflection, I regret to admit that if someone cuts me off while driving, my initial reaction is to utter a barely audible but nevertheless indelicate, “Asshole!” I never fail to feel guilty about this outburst. In a way, it reminds me of the way I feel when I say something I know to be incorrect: “There’s…several more on the table,” for example. No, there are (there’re) several more on the table. I know this perfectly well; I’ve known it since before I began schooling. And yet, hearing it multiple times daily for many years now, somehow it has seeped into my psyche and will, much against my wish, find its way into my speech. So it is with an indignant expletive from behind the wheel of the car.
Ah, but, I know full well that as a fully functioning adult, I cannot reasonably ascribe undesirable thoughts, words, or actions to the influence of society at large. If I don’t take responsibility for presenting myself in a manner that is palatable to me and to those whom I respect, I run the risk of sliding into a murky, slovenly, apathetic laziness.
My tai chi teacher, Sunny, once told of a fisherman in his boat on a lake, deeply focused on hauling in the fish on his hook. Suddenly he felt a jostling and turned impatiently to find that an empty boat had drifted into his. In a heartbeat his indignation dissolved as he looked around in puzzlement. On another occasion the fisherman was again deeply focused on his catch when the boat was jostled. This time he turned quietly, expecting to find an empty boat, but, no, this time the boat that bumped into the fisherman’s boat was occupied by another man. Instantly the fisherman became outraged. “You clumsy oaf,” he shrieked, “watch where you’re going.” Ask yourself, why was the fisherman angry on one occasion and not on the other?
Here’s my intention: whenever I feel someone has done something that transgresses, that crosses the boundary into “my” personal space, as it were, I will make a best effort to interpret that action in the most positive way possible. So, returning to the experience of someone cutting me off in traffic, immediately after the minor outburst, I will say, “That’s a tourist who is more focused on where she’s going than on how well she gets there.” Or “That’s an older woman who doesn’t have the speedy reflexes and judgment that she once had.” (Ouch.) Eventually I might get to the point where I imagine it as a video game, “That car sped in front of me in order to test my reflexes.” In so doing, I turn a perceived negative experience into first a neutral experience and then into a positive experience. I save wear and tear on my heart, nerves, and respiratory function. I get few wrinkles. Sounds like a win-win for me.
* self–righteous : convinced of one’s own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others : narrow-mindedly moralistic (Miriam Webster) : Feeling that we have some benefit or advantage over someone else because we do—or refrain from doing—something. (Overcomers Unlimited)