I am known amongst my friends for my tendency to take credit (and sometimes demand it) for exercising restraint. A person irritates or annoys me, and rather than firing off the multitude of retorts that quickly pile up in my head, I keep my mouth shut and demand recognition for my willingness to avoid confrontation.
Not surprising, few (actually none) believe that I deserve credit in these instances. I’m told that everyone exercises this kind of restraint, and the only reason that I feel entitled to some credit is because I don’t exercise it often enough.
As a friend once said, “You don’t get credit for not acting like a jerk just because you usually act like a jerk.”
Some friend. Huh?
Along these same lines, a friend recently pointed me to an NPR story on “moral grade inflation,” indicating that these lines in particular made him think of me:
When you celebrate what should be ordinary behavior as extraordinary, experts say, it sends a dangerous message.
"I do worry about a culture in which people are giving selves credit for not having done terrible things. It sets a really low bar for what it takes to be a good person," says London Business School professor Daniel Effron. Effron, who teaches behavioral ethics, says feting folks for what he calls "the immoral road not taken" could actually encourage bad behavior.
Hogwash, I say, both because it’s nonsense and because the quote comes from a professor at the London Business School, so a word like hogwash feels right.
The desire to say something mean or stupid or do something mean or stupid is a powerful one. It's what causes people to do wrong. It’s the basis for evil. If people resisted their immoral urges more often, the world would be a much better place. It's great to imagine a world in which good deeds are the norm and surprising generosity isn’t so surprising, but a world in which everyone resisted the urges to do wrong would be pretty freakin' great, too.
A low bar? Perhaps. But I would argue it’s a more realistic, less idealized bar, and one we have yet to clear. And if we ever did manage to clear that low bar, the world would change for the better in immeasurable ways.
It’s also harder for some to resist these kinds of urges than others. My first novel is about a fairly benevolent burglar who believes that he might be the best thief who has ever lived (and he might be right). He struggles with the idea of abandoning his life of crime because of his remarkable skill and expertise.
Imagine how difficult it must be to quit doing something when you’re at the top of your game.
This is why I take credit (and often demand it) for exercising restraint. I am extremely adept at verbal combat. Engage me in an argument and my mind works incredibly fast. Options for retorts, insults, counterpoints and more flash through my mind like the Terminator’s visual display. I find myself with a multitude of options, and it’s simply a matter of choosing the one that will do the most damage or hurt my opponent the most.
It’s what I’m good at. It’s my thing. I can’t throw a football or make simple household repairs or understand a word of a Virginia Woolf novels, but I am damn good when it comes to verbal combat. It’s a skill that was probably honed from a childhood of living with an evil step-father who made a living as a psychiatric social worker.
It was a proving ground like no other.
So yes, when I am confronted with a stupid or annoying person, and I exercise restraint when I’m quite capable of eviscerating the person, I want some credit, damn it. I want it acknowledged that I didn’t do bad, and that while not doing bad isn’t the same as doing good, it’s close enough.
For some of us, it’s all we can do.