Creating a World without Assholes
People can be real jerks. They can be rude, condescending, insulting. They can be greedy, selfish, egotistical. They can be stubborn, narrow-minded, hard-headed, and sometimes just plain mean. You probably know a few people like this, people you avoid as much as possible, those sundry unpleasant sorts you’ve come to regard as, well, assholes. Chances are you’re not even the only one who thinks of these particular individuals in this way. A lot of folks likely consider them assholes too, probably for the exact same reasons you do. Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely if such people didn’t exist? Wouldn’t it be simply stupendous if the world we live in was suddenly completely free of assholes?
Luckily, the truth is that we already live in such a world, it just happens to be a little bit difficult to see at times. This is one of my favorite realizations I’ve had in my life, that, when you get right down to it, there really are no assholes. Yes, this is the point where I imagine you replying something along the lines of–You’ve obviously never met my… husband, next door neighbor, last boss, college roommate. Fair enough, but I don’t need to meet this person you’re recognizing as the quintessential asshole for me to know that he or she is not one.
Not long ago I was talking with a client who had a certain fondness for referring to her husband as “the asshole”. Although this moniker was partly endearing, it nonetheless contained a distinct scorn she harbored for him and his behaviors. When I suggested that her husband wasn’t actually an asshole, she laughed out loud. “How do you know?” She asked. This was a truly astute question from her. How did I know?
At the time of writing this, I’ve been a therapist for nearly a decade. I’ve spent many thousands of hours counseling hundreds of different types of clients. This has given me the special opportunity to witness what exists beneath the superficial, exterior defenses of people as they, over the course of the therapeutic process, unfold into progressively more honest states of being, revealing their truest and most authentic selves to me. Without fail, what I consistently find behind even the most coarse and abrasive of facades is something so elegantly simple: the gentle soul, vulnerable and harmless, craving merely to love and be loved.
No one is born an asshole. The “assholes” we encounter in life are behaving the way they do for understandable reasons. You do not have to know the specific reasons to exercise an awareness about this. The character of Carl, the stereotypical curmudgeon depicted in the animated film “Up”, is a sublime example of this. Over the course of the film, Carl’s cantankerous persona–which we learn is caused by the deaths of his unborn child and lifelong love–ultimately melts away as he bonds with an 8-year-old boy named Russell. I’m certain that, prior to this transformation, Carl’s neighbors would have considered him an asshole. The film shows us how wrong these neighbors would have been in their (hasty) assessments of him.
This matters because we tend to avoid those we’ve deemed are “assholes” and, when we do, we push them away from us. Although this strategy may work in the short-term–simply circumventing those whose personalities are difficult to enjoy– does it really help either ourselves or others in the long run? What if this “asshole” is our spouse (as in the case of my client) or related to us or signs our paycheck or lives next door? If we merely aim to shun or avoid such a person, will he or she cease treating us poorly? Of course not! Since we’ll be giving them the exact opposite of what they desire (intimacy, connection, embrace), they’re bound to continue acting like an asshole towards us. Ultimately, this isn’t what we want. We want them to stop treating us like the asshole they aren’t. Now the question becomes: how to get there?
Treating people coldly is an unpleasant and emotionally draining experience. “Assholes” don’t enjoy it (even if it appears they do). They treat people like this because they’re scared, scared of rejection, scared of not being accepted, not being liked or respected or appreciated, scared of not being loved. If we condemn such a person for this fear (yes, avoidance is a form of condemnation), their fear amplifies and, with it, their self-protective behaviors, the exact same behaviors we dislike about them. When we choose to, instead, treat them as a friend, giving them permission to not know how to interact in a more loving and courageous way, then over time we see their iciness thaw, just as it did in the case of Carl. As a result, we no longer feel compelled to go out of our way to avoid this person. We may even find ourselves the recipient of another meaningful relationship in our life. And even if we don’t, we find that giving permission in this way is, at the very least, a more rewarding experience for us personally than blaming another human (erroneously) for being an asshole.
So, yes, people are complicated. Yes, people act like assholes a bunch of the time. But, that said, you never have to fall into the trap of misunderstanding. The next time you feel a temptation to label someone an “asshole”, stop yourself. Endeavor to adopt a more illumined perspective. Remind yourself that, if you really got to know this “asshole”, you’d discover the truth about him or her. The only assholes are those we don’t adequately know. Challenge yourself to see beyond what manifests on the sometimes confused, hurt, wounded, and troubled exteriors of those around you. Remember that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. And, whenever you cannot see the beauty that is another human being, know that that is because you’re not looking, not because it is not there. Just open your eyes–and your heart–more widely and you’ll discover, for yourself, the truth that there are no assholes.
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