Whorled View

February 15, 2007

It’s hard to love a jerk

Filed under: Communications,Sociology — lullabyman @ 11:18 am

When it came to jerks I used to think “just you wait … someday you’ll die and then see the video of your life and realize what a jerk you are – and then you’ll feel really bad”. Not anymore. Maybe it’s my crotchety cynicism, growing pragmatism, or maybe I just don’t care anymore, or perhaps justice just isn’t so important to me anymore. Regardless, I don’t think the after-life will provide any chances for smugness.

Chances are that if someone does get a complete overview of their life after they die, they’ll still think they were in the right when they weren’t. Regardless of their eternal destination they will probably be self-satisfied wherever they are, as they would eventually feel uncomfortable spending eternity with people who were better than them. Besides, although justice may be met, those who plan on feeling smug about it probably will suffer justice for their unrighteous desire to be smug.

I’ve also gone through the pathetic “I know you’re a jerk, and knowing that is good enough for me” phase (similar to the oxymoronic “kill them with kindness” philosophy), and the spiteful “just you wait, what comes around goes around” phase. Both perspectives provide hollow solace though, and they’re both just a little despicable (I don’t trust the emotions of people who brag about “killing others with kindness” – to me it seems the epitome of hypocrisy to leverage kindness in a way intended to “kill” somebody, and the fact they take pride in doing so reveals a kind of bankrupt idea of charity).

Of course many might wonder: Why love a jerk? It’s not a new question. In the bible Jesus said “Thou shalt love thy brother as thyself” and then explained that included everyone, even those who spitefully use you, and that we should forgive as often as opportunity allows. He was treated worse than anyone yet despite having every reason and right to condemn them he forgave even his crucifiers and then pleaded with his Father to also forgive them.

But we all observe this kind of thing even today, right? You see the victims of heinous crimes and they fall somewhere between two extremes – those who vengeance, and those who forgive. Those who can let go of feelings for revenge, are a rarity because forgiveness for heinous acts is so contrary to our nature as human beings. Humans are all about justice – a logical construct that provides the social consciousness and legal foundation for civilization, yes? You can spitefully kick a puppy and they may come back with their tails wagging, but accidentally step on a persons foot and for some justice must be meted out as a matter of principle. Justice must be done, for justice sake, yes? Else mankind’s selfishness tendencies would collapse civilization into complete lawlessness and anarchy, or so we are taught.

On a more internal level we as humans may personalize a careless oversight as a debasing offense from which we might, if only momentarily, entertain a vengeful plot of getting-even. Thankfully most people subdue such inclinations. Some people are even merciful. How about that? I’m not talking about the mother who forgives her newborn for keeping her awake. I’m talking about those who were horribly wronged by an unrepentant criminal, who search for the ability to forgive deeply within the darkest recesses of their soul where a long and arduous battle is fought between the need for justice and the need for mercy – but why? Why struggle to forgive when you’ve been wronged and where a punishing justice is deserved? You know, offering such mercy isn’t a natural impulse for most people. Furthermore it can be difficult to teach and to learn, and even more difficult to practice. In consequence of raising 5 kids I can promise you that … forgiveness and mercy is contrary to human nature, but with great effort we can change those natures.

And why forgive? Because it’s worth it. The ability to forgive makes a person both venerable and invulnerable. It makes one venerable because it’s the ultimate act of love and the only way we can in some small way partake in sharing the greatest gift ever given. It makes one invulnerable because such people seem to be the only ones capable of carrying-on in the midst of fierce atrocities without being consumed with anger. Unlike the natural man, the forgiver doesn’t crumble into an immobile pile of hopelessness when dealt a heavy blow of injustice, nor are they distorted into a destructive force of vindictiveness. They forge-on, building and growing in a positive and self-empowering way that un-forgivers never can. I don’t know if I could do that in some circumstances and I never want to find out if I could. I do however have tremendous respect and admiration for those who can manage to forgive a perpetrator where the offense was unforgivable.

So why am I rambling on about this? Because having to deal with jerks is a daily part of life with me and I wish it wasn’t. I wish I was entirely selfless simply because those who are seem to be the most at peace with the world, and are in fact venerable to all and invulnerable to jerks. And yet that seems strange that my desire for selflessness stems not from love for others but from a selfish desire to personally be at peace.

Somewhere in there I know that love plays a critical if not the central part. Why else would I want peace unless I found spite contrary to my nature? The scriptures certainly seem to indicate that love is the answer to living a life of peace in the midst of a million jerks and real life examples of peaceable people all seem to bear that out. But it’s hard to love a jerk, or a person who acts like a jerk. How does one do it?

I had a close friend who was at peace with the world and once he said to me that when dealing with jerks he’d look into their eyes and try to see them as a dear sibling and say in his heart “I love you”. He said that when he did that he found his own composure changed, enough so that the “jerk” naturally responded in like manner and there were able to find common ground and the “jerk” wasn’t so much a jerk anymore. Of course you have to be in person for this technique to work – otherwise (email, and phone calls, etc) this technique just isn’t possible.

Indeed we’re all jerks about one thing or another, and in every case selfishness seems to be the root cause of it – nobody is perfect. I think remembering that helps … helping us to see them when we look in the mirror. Of course, some people are much bigger jerks … but all I have to do is relive the embarrassment of some time when I was a jerk and then be embarrassed for them too instead of mad at them.

In the end, your own emotions really are the result of your cognitions (interpretations, personal opinions, perspectives, beliefs) rather than the result of events around you (or how much a jerk somebody is). That concept is actually the entire logic behind “cognitive therapy”, but it’s also just common sense. Although reducing one’s jerk-like behavior makes it easy to be around them … why should you be dependent on their behavior for your happiness? You can decide how you interpret their behavior whatever it is. Besides, perhaps they’re being a jerk because they’re dealing with a personal issue you’ll never learn of – or maybe they’re mildly autistic or just socially-unaware so they come off as impersonal and difficult to please, ie. a jerk. It makes no difference … you don’t really need to know the cause in order to be unencumbered by someone’s jerk-ness. It bothers you only because of how you perceive it.

But generally there are things you can do to encourage less jerk-like behavior. Stephen Covey says the key to dealing with jerks (though he doesn’t call them “jerks”) is to first seek to understand then seek to be understood. I’ve found that works almost always, but not if the other person doesn’t trust your sincerity. Covey then says to not expect a reciprocation and to even make it clear that you don’t expect any reciprocation on their part – only that you want to understand them, above all other things. Again, the principle enabling this whole technique is a disarming display of selflessness.

It never fails to amaze me how many salespeople are jerks. Apparently being a jerk produces results so for many of them it becomes the modus-operandi. Same goes for many managers, and for some customers who think they get best results by treating their vendors like crap (I get a lot of that).

Covey’s approach to the insulting salesperson might be to say sincerely: “You seem______________ (describe how they seem to feel – disgusted,impatient,burdened,stressed), I’m concerned for you … are you okay?” Express real brotherly concern about their emotional welfare or how stress kills, and their demeanor will totally change. Even if they say “You can help me buy buying something” you have a wonderful opportunity help them see that happiness doesn’t come from money. It would probably even be fun to go to a high pressure car lot with a stack of business cards of a mental health expert – or for a local church – might actually end up doing some good if you act sincerely – but then that might sabotage the “fun” component of such an exercise. Interacting with a manager or customer who’s a jerk requires more finesse. The Covey method basically involves converting them to the idea that since you’re sincerely concerned about them (because your respect them, not just because they’re your boss) you’ll put their needs above your own (within reason of course). That doesn’t mean you have to do just that … just get them to believe so.

The worst thing to do though is to lower yourself to their level and be a jerk yourself. It simply provides no useful long term results, even if the short term results are temporarily satisfying.

Okay enough of my rambling. Time to take my own medicine (I’m dealing with some jerks right now).



  1. Nice blog!

    Comment by laluttefinale — April 16, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

  2. i loved this. helped me a lot

    Comment by Ramsey Regulus Eassa — July 3, 2008 @ 2:57 am

  3. Good advice. Thanks for posting. Keep the faith!


    Comment by Daniel — July 9, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  4. Reading your insights have really helped me today, thank you.

    Comment by sol — June 30, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

  5. I like what you said: “The worst thing to do though is to lower yourself to their level and be a jerk yourself. It simply provides no useful long term results, even if the short term results are temporarily satisfying.” Reacting to them will only make things worse, and make you you feel worse too. Reactions can escalate and turn everything into a fiasco. Better to ignore them and/or not stoop to their level.

    Comment by Betsy — January 17, 2010 @ 4:35 am

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Can so relate!

    Comment by Anonymous — December 12, 2011 @ 8:51 am

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