On dealing with assholes

One day a long time ago after reading a talk I had given that was dripping with hopeful optimism, my father remarked to me something along the lines of “You’re still young and growing.  It sounds like you’re still trying to find your way.  You’ll eventually realize that life will make you colder and harder.”  He was right.  Sort of.

Sometimes in our sanitized, modern Western life, we lose connection with just how dangerous and uncertain life is.  Infant mortality rates are an easy proxy to use for perspective.  Historical estimates are 200 deaths per 1000 in a good year and over 500 deaths per 1000 in years of severe drought, famine, disease or war.  By comparison, in 2006 in the U.S., the infant mortality rate was 6.7 per 1000 (right in between Slovakia and Chile).

While our harsh environment has been somewhat tamed and we have, as a result, become more “civilized” (but compare what happens when the power goes out for an extended period, and we are perhaps not so civilized after all…), we still struggle for our existence. We fight for survival or promotion in our workplaces; we fight for the best terms in our agreements; we fight for mates; we sometimes even fight for toys for our kids for Christmas, even trampling others to death to do so.  This modern manner of survival can seem just as cold and hard emotionally as a subsistence existence can be physically.

But it does not automatically follow that it makes each person cold and hard in turn.  Depending on the coldness and hardness of one’s circumstances and one’s predilections, one certainly could become colder and harder in general.  But another way to respond is to remain warm and open in general, while growing in that wisdom that permits us to navigate rocky shoals without getting bashed against the rocks. Coldness and hardness can be situationally appropriate without condemning one’s soul to a boorish existence.

I find my greatest happiness in relationships – with my wife, my children and my closest friends. These relationships all require my genuine warmth and openness and would be impossible if I were to allow myself to grow colder and harder.  At the same time, I have spent enough time in the rough and tumble world of big cities, big money and big egos that I can detect an asshole by the faintest whiff.  Sometimes you have to deal with assholes, so you do.

You first try reason, and dealing with a reasonable asshole can be bearable if not downright pleasant.  Most assholes at least have the vision to understand that not every situation calls for the same tactic, so if they see that a party cannot be bullied and insists on reasonableness as the standard, they will meet you there. Some will push the boundaries at every turn, while others have the brains to size you up and adjust accordingly to avoid wasting energy on someone who cannot be bullied.  Do not be mistaken – they will take every inch you give, and they will push for the next inch. This is particularly important if your asshole is a repeat customer. Your first interaction will likely determine the pattern for the rest of them, and a poor first performance will consign you to misery for the rest of that relationship.

Sometimes, however, the successful assholes think their asshole-ness is the sole cause of their success, so reason will not work – they just make demands as of a right and are belligerent until they get their way or get as much as they can.  At that point, you just have to strap yourself in for a shitty ride, grit the process out and wait for the day that the asshole exits your life stage left. Sometimes you’ll win; sometimes you’ll lose, but in either case, your life will NOT be the better for it. Such is the price of dealing with unreasonable assholes.

Fortunately, unreasonable assholes are few and far between, and it pays great dividends to try to marginalize them as best you can. If your livelihood or success depends on an unreasonable asshole, my advice is to GET OUT.  Get out as fast as you can. It’s just not worth it; there is always another bus. Life is too short, and if you choose to hitch your cart to an unreasonable horse’s ass…well, you’ll get what’s coming to you – a cartload of horseshit.

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